The evolution of senescence from a comparative perspective


*Correspondence author. E-mail:


  • 1Comparative studies of ageing address the evolutionary lability of the rate of ageing as an indication of potential for, and constraints on, the extension of life span.
  • 2Experimental studies on ageing have focused on damage induced by reactive oxygen species (ROS) and other stresses, and on the mechanisms to prevent or repair this damage. Research on animal models has revealed genes with large effects on life span. However, the relevance of some animal models to human ageing is unclear and it is not known whether evolved differences in ageing involve such major gene effects.
  • 3Studies on the demography of populations of vertebrates in the wild show that animals suffer from senescence in nature. Variation in the rate of ageing is consistent with evolutionary theory in that senescence is delayed in populations that suffer relatively low extrinsic mortality.
  • 4Populations of longer-lived individuals suffer a higher proportion of ageing-related mortality, and thus stronger selection against early ageing. The presence of ageing-related deaths in these populations suggests a lack of suitable mechanisms that would further extend life span.
  • 5Similar patterns of ageing-related mortality in wild and captive or domesticated populations indicate that most ageing-related death is caused by intrinsic factors, such as tumours and cardiovascular failure, rather than increasing vulnerability to extrinsic causes of mortality.
  • 6Studies of several wild populations of long-lived birds suggest that ageing-related mortality is often catastrophic, with individuals maintaining high levels of condition until shortly before their demise.
  • 7Comparative studies of many species suggest connections between early development and the pattern of ageing later in life, consistent with laboratory studies on variation within individual species. The physiological connections across the life span are not well understood.
  • 8Comparative studies have provided important insights into the ageing process. However, we still lack information on important issues, including the causes of death in natural populations, the relationship of within- and between-population variation in the rate of ageing, the genetic basis of variation in rate of ageing in natural populations, and detailed longitudinal studies of individual health and reproductive success in relation to age at death.