- Senescence, the physiological decline that results in decreasing survival and/or reproduction with age, remains one of the most perplexing topics in biology. Most theories explaining the evolution of senescence (i.e. antagonistic pleiotropy, accumulation of mutations, disposable soma) were developed decades ago. Even though these theories have implicitly focused on unitary animals, they have also been used as the foundation from which the universality of senescence across the tree of life is assumed.
- Surprisingly, little is known about the general patterns, causes and consequences of whole-individual senescence in the plant kingdom. There are important differences between plants and most animals, including modular architecture, the absence of early determination of cell lines between the soma and gametes, and cellular division that does not always shorten telomere length. These characteristics violate the basic assumptions of the classical theories of senescence and therefore call the generality of senescence theories into question.
- This Special Feature contributes to the field of whole-individual plant senescence with five research articles addressing topics ranging from physiology to demographic modelling and comparative analyses. These articles critically examine the basic assumptions of senescence theories such as age-specific gene action, the evolution of senescence regardless of the organism's architecture and environmental filtering, and the role of abiotic agents on mortality trajectories.
- Synthesis. Understanding the conditions under which senescence has evolved is of general importance across biology, ecology, evolution, conservation biology, medicine, gerontology, law and social sciences. The question ‘why is senescence universal or why is it not?’ naturally calls for an evolutionary perspective. Senescence is a puzzling phenomenon, and new insights will be gained by uniting methods, theories and observations from formal demography, animal demography and plant population ecology. Plants are more amenable than animals to experiments investigating senescence, and there is a wealth of published plant demographic data that enable interpretation of experimental results in the context of their full life cycles. It is time to make plants count in the field of senescence.