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Longevity Predicted By Social Status in Mammals

Update Date: Mar 12, 2015 11:17 AM EDT

Social status could help predict longevity in mammals, according to a new study.

The study, which involved wild hyenas, revealed evidence that social and ecological factors can significantly influence animal health.

"High-ranking members in hyena clans reproduce more, they live longer and appear to be in better overall health," co-author Nora Lewin of Michigan State University said in a news release. "If you want to see the hierarchy of spotted hyenas, throw down some fresh meat near them. It's quickly apparent who's dominant and who's not."

Lewin and her team examined DNA and found that higher-ranking hyenas have longer telomeres than their subordinates. Previous studies have linked the length of telomeres, which cap DNA strands to protect chromosomal deterioration, to stress and aging. Longer telomeres were linked to less stress and slower aging whereas shorter telomeres were linked to more stress and accelerated aging.

"This work shows, for the first time, the effects of social rank on telomere length in wild mammals," Lewin said. "This enhances our understanding of how social and ecological variables may contribute to age-related declines of hyenas, and in organisms in general."

"The fact that there is variation in telomere length when prey abundance is constant means that there are other factors we need to find," Lewin concluded. "We think it's less about genetics and more influenced by the environment, but we just need to keep searching for the right environmental factors."

The findings were published in the journal Biology Letters.

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