The evolutionary ecology of senescence


  • P. Monaghan,

    Corresponding author
    1. Division of Environmental and Evolutionary Biology, Institute of Biomedical and Life Sciences, Graham Kerr Building, University of Glasgow, Glasgow G12 8QQ, UK;
      *Correspondence author. E-mail:
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  • A. Charmantier,

    1. Centre d’Ecologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive, CNRS U.M.R. 5175, 1919, route de Mende, 34293 Montpellier cedex 5, France;
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  • D. H. Nussey,

    1. Institute of Evolutionary Biology, University of Edinburgh, Kings’ Buildings, West Mains Road, Edinburgh EH9 3JT, UK; and
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  • R. E. Ricklefs

    1. Department of Biology, University of Missouri-St. Louis, One University Boulevard, St. Louis, MO 63130, USA
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*Correspondence author. E-mail:


  • 1Research on senescence has largely focused on its underlying causes, and is concentrated on humans and relatively few model organisms in laboratory conditions. To understand the evolutionary ecology of senescence, research on a broader taxonomic range is needed, incorporating field, and, where possible, longitudinal studies.
  • 2Senescence is generally considered to involve progressive deterioration in performance, and it is important to distinguish this from other age-related phenotypic changes. We outline and discuss the main explanations of why selection has not eliminated senescence, and summarise the principal mechanisms thought to be involved.
  • 3The main focus of research on senescence is on age-related changes in mortality risk. However, evolutionary biologists focus on fitness, of which survival is only one component. To understand the selective pressures shaping senescence patterns, more attention needs to be devoted to age-related changes in fecundity.
  • 4Both genetic and environmental factors influence the rate of senescence. However, a much clearer distinction needs to be drawn between life span and senescence rate, and between factors that alter the overall risk of death, and factors that alter the rate of senescence. This is particularly important when considering the potential reversibility and plasticity of senescence, and environmental effects, such as circumstances early in life.
  • 5There is a need to reconcile the different approaches to studying senescence, and to integrate theories to explain the evolution of senescence with other evolutionary theories such as sexual and kin selection.