Research on telomeres in the fields of ecology and evolution has been rapidly expanding over the last two decades. This has resulted in the formulation of a multitude of, often name-given, hypotheses related to the associations between telomeres and life-history traits or fitness-facilitating processes (and the mechanisms underlying them). However, the differences (or similarities) between the various hypotheses, which can originate from different research fields, are often not obvious. Our aim here is therefore to give an overview of the hypotheses that are of interest in ecology and evolution and to provide two frameworks that help discriminate among them. We group the hypotheses (i) based on their association with different research questions, and (ii) using a hierarchical approach that builds on the assumptions they make, such as about causality of telomere length/shortening and/or the proposed functional consequences of telomere shortening on organism performance. Both our frameworks show that there exist parallel lines of thoughts in different research fields. Moreover, they also clearly illustrate that there are in many cases competing hypotheses within clusters, and that some of these even have contradictory assumptions and/or predictions. We also touch upon two topics in telomere research that would benefit from further conceptualization. This review should help researchers, both those familiar with and those new to the subject, to identify future avenues of research.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5946-5965
Number of pages20
JournalMolecular Ecology
Issue number23
Early online date2021
Publication statusPublished - 2022 Dec

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Evolutionary Biology
  • Ecology

Free keywords

  • cancer surveillance
  • critical threshold in telomere length life history strategies
  • senescence and ageing
  • telomere elongation
  • telomere maintenance costs
  • telomere shortening
  • telomere signalling life history


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