Measuring senescence in wild animal populations: towards a longitudinal approach


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  • 1A major current challenge in ageing research is to understand why senescence rates vary between individuals, populations and species in wild populations.
  • 2Recent studies clearly illustrate that senescent declines in key demographic and life-history traits can be observed in many wild animal systems.
  • 3Here, we summarize the key challenges facing researchers working to understand senescence in the wild. We concentrate on: (i) limited data availability, (ii) the substantial individual heterogeneity typical of wild populations, (iii) incomplete capture histories, and (iv) trade-offs across the life span.
  • 4We discuss analytical methods to overcome these challenges. We advocate the use of Capture–Mark–Recapture models to remove likely bias associated with re-sampling rates of less than one. We also illustrate that ageing trajectories may vary between different traits in wild populations. Wherever possible, researchers should examine ageing patterns in multiple traits.
  • 5Numerous models are available to describe the rate and shape of senescence in free-living populations, but there is currently little consensus regarding which is most appropriate in analyses of wild organisms.
  • 6We argue that only longitudinal studies of marked or recognizable individuals provide reliable sources of information in the study of senescence. Senescence is a within-individual process and only longitudinal studies allow researchers to separate within-individual ageing patterns from between-individual heterogeneity.
  • 7We examine two analytical approaches to measure ageing using longitudinal data from wild populations: a jack-knifing approach, well-suited to modelling survival probability, and a mixed-effects model approach. Both methods control for sources of between-individual heterogeneity to allow more accurate measurement of within-individual ageing patterns.