Climate change causing endangered Aussie birds to die early

Just when you thought the impact of climate change couldn’t get any more depressing, new Australian research has found it’s accelerating the ageing process.

Global warming has been linked to damaged DNA in endangered Australian songbirds, and it’s causing them to die significantly earlier.

A 17-year study, led by Monash University, measured the impact of hotter and dryer conditions on the western subspecies of purple-crowned fairy wrens, of which no more than 9000 survive in the wild.

Two images of the fairy wrens. One as day old chicks, and the others around a week on.
Climate change has been linked to accelerated ageing in Australian fairy wrens. Source: Niki Teunissen / AWC

Researchers found evidence their telomeres, which protect chromosome integrity, were being shortened when the birds were just tiny nestlings.

If conditions remain the same, the impact will take hundreds of years to impact overall populations, and the effect could be mitigated by evolution.

Despite this ray of hope, Professor Anne Peters from the School of Biological Sciences warns climate change is just one of many pressures the species faces.

“It’s not necessarily a very fast event, but it comes on top of everything else,” she told Yahoo News Australia.

How is climate change damaging DNA?

Prior to publication, it had already been established that telomeres basically function the same in all animals.

Telomeres protect DNA, and over time shorten as animals grow, as well as in response to stress events including temperature.

Growing animals are generally more sensitive to DNA damage, and even if the impact isn’t clear right away, there can be downstream effects.

Two adult purple-crowned fairy wrens
No more than 9000 of the western subspecies of purple-crowned fairy wrens survive. Source: Niki Teunissen / AWC

Will humans also age faster due to climate change?

Purple-crowned fairy wrens could be ageing faster, dying younger and producing less offspring because of climate change.

Left - a burned out Russian forest. Right - an elderly woman receiving ageing treatment.
Climate change could impact human lifespans too. Source: Getty (File)

Worryingly, Professor Peters points out that the mechanisms which underly this phenomenon are common across most species, including humans.

“I would say that in terms of the sensitivity of the telomeres to stress, mammals certainly are also known to do that, humans as well,” she told Yahoo News Australia.

“We can be born with shorter telomeres if our mother had a very hard time in pregnancy.

“Mammals of course, are a little bit more buffered because they do quite a lot of the growing, more of the growing inside the mother.

“But there's nothing that makes me want to say: No, this wouldn't happen in mammals, it's unique to birds.”

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