Captive African grey parrots are often housed alone and have little social contact with other parrots. A new study shows that this can be detrimental to their health, well-being, and longevity. The original research report by Denise Aydinonat and her colleagues is called Social Isolation Shortens Telomeres in African Grey Parrots (Psittacus erithacus erithacus) and a summary of this fascinating study titled The long and the short of telomeres: Loneliness impacts DNA repair, parrot study shows can be seen here.
The summary of the original research paper nicely accounts for the way in which social isolation affects African greys and explains the relationship between telomere length and stress.
Telomeres, the caps of eukaryotic chromosomes, control chromosome stability and cellular senescence, but aging and exposure to chronic stress are suspected to cause attrition of telomere length. We investigated the effect of social isolation on telomere length in the highly social and intelligent African Grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus erithacus). ... We found that telomere length declined with age (p<0.001), and socially isolated parrots had significantly shorter telomeres compared to pair-housed birds (p<0.001) – even among birds of similar ages. Our findings provide the first evidence that social isolation affects telomere length, which supports the hypothesis that telomeres provide a biomarker indicating exposure to chronic stress.
These researchers note in their discussion that the "RTLs [relative telomere lengths] of single-housed birds at nine years of age were comparable to pair-housed birds 23 years older than themselves." We also learn, according to Dustin Penn who works at the Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology at the Vetmeduni Vienna, that, "Studies on humans suggest that people who have experienced high levels of social stress and deprivation have shorter telomeres."
We've known for a long time that social isolation can have serious short-term and long-term effects on behavior, and now we know that the stress from being housed alone can erode DNA. More research is needed, especially longitudinal research on the same individuals, but this is the first study to look at how social isolation affects telomere length. It highlights how the way in which people keep captive and domestic animals can have serious hidden effects on health and longevity. Being lonely isn't good for otherwise social animals.
Denise Aydinonat, Dustin J. Penn, Steve Smith, Yoshan Moodley, Franz Hoelzl, Felix Knauer, Franz Schwarzenberger. Social Isolation Shortens Telomeres in African Grey Parrots (Psittacus erithacus erithacus). PLoS ONE, 2014; 9 (4): e93839 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0093839
Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson; see also), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation (see also), and Why dogs hump and bees get depressed (see also). Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence will be published fall 2014. (marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff