It’s stressful being a low-ranking hyena—so stressful that even their chromosomes feel it. Researchers have discovered that the challenges of African savanna hyena society shorten underdogs’ telomeres, stretches of DNA that bookend chromosomes and protect them from wear and tear during cell replication. The stress may come from the top hyenas getting the best meat, whereas lower ranking individuals have to travel long distances—sometimes to the edges of the group territory—to fend for themselves. With increased stress, higher amounts of stress hormones and cellular byproducts like oxygen ions and peroxides are produced, both of which have been shown to shorten telomeres in other species. When telomeres fall below a certain length, cells go into damage-control mode and kick off biochemical pathways that can result in cell death. The study, the team reports online today in Biology Letters, is the first to show that the stress of social hierarchy can shorten telomeres in a wild species.
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