Senescence of song revealed by a long-term study of the Seychelles warbler ( Acrocephalus sechellensis )
Abstract: Senescence is widespread in nature, often resulting in diminishing survival or reproduction with age, but its role in age-dependent variation in sexual traits is often poorly understood. One reason is that few studies of sexual traits consider non-linear relationships with age, or only consider a narrow range of years relative to the life span of the species. Birdsong has evolved to allow assessment of conspecific quality in numerous bird species. Whilst theory and empirical work suggests that song may become more elaborate with age, there are a paucity of long-term studies testing whether song is associated with age or longevity. In particular, the occurrence of song senescence has rarely been demonstrated. Using an exceptional long-term dataset for the Seychelles warbler (Acrocephalus sechellensis), we analysed relationships between male song, age, survival, and longevity. This species is a long-lived songbird with early life increases, followed by senescent declines, in survival and reproduction. The study population (Cousin Island, Seychelles) is a closed population, with no depredation of adults, providing an excellent opportunity to study senescence in free-living animals. We tested whether song traits were related to age at recording, future survival, longevity, and territory quality. We found age-dependent changes in five song traits (duration, maximum frequency, peak frequency of songs, and duration and frequency bandwidth of trills). Relationships with age were quadratic, indicating reversal in the expression of song coinciding with the onset of senescence in reproduction and survival in this species. One song trait (trill bandwidth) had a quadratic relationship with future survival, but no song traits were related to longevity, suggesting age-related patterns were not the result of selective disappearance. Our study provides one of the first examples of functional senescence in song, offering new insights into avian senescence. Late-life declines in avian song, and possibly other sexual traits, may be more common than currently known, and may play a fundamental role in age-dependent changes in reproductive success.
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