Monday 24 April 2017

Why having a wingspan can help lengthen your lifespan

A pair of swans. Photo: PA
A pair of swans. Photo: PA
Bats - only a small group of bats actually live longer
Blue andn yellow makaw

Paul Melia Environment Correspondent

SCIENTISTS have discovered the secret to a long and happy life – the ability to fly.

Animals able to take to the skies to escape predators live longer than similarly-sized species which forage for food at ground level, researchers in Dublin have revealed.

But taking flight isn't the only key to surviving longer. Living in a burrow and sourcing most of your food in the treetops also helps.

Differences in lifespan usually relate to body size, with the small pygmy goby living for just eight weeks while the bowhead whale can live for up to 211 years.

But scientists at Trinity College Dublin wanted to know why this pattern wasn't true for everything in the animal kingdom, and new research published in the high-profile journal, 'Proceedings of the Royal Society B' now tells us why.

By looking at the maximum lifespan of more than 1,300 birds and mammals, researchers learned that species which live in trees or burrows, or possess the ability to fly, live far longer than expected for their body size.

They believe this is because these ways of living result in a lesser chance of being eaten by predators or starving due to drought, and the "evolutionary safety net" means natural selection has pushed these species to invest more effort in living longer.

"These results help explain the unusually long life spans of many birds and bats, as such species can easily avoid predators or poor weather," lead author PhD student Kevin Healy said.

"Long-ranging seabirds, such as the albatross, provide a great example.

"Our findings also allow us to more accurately identify species with extreme lifespans, which pushes us to try to understand their secrets. For example, while bats were thought to have unusually long lifespans, our results show that only a small group of them actually live longer than expected once we have taken into account the benefit they get from being able to fly. When it comes to lifespan, most bats can really be thought of as furry birds."

Bats live 3.5 times longer than non-flying species of a similar size, whereas birds live up to four times as long.

Mammals with the ability to fly can evade predators, while those in burrows have an escape route in place if they are attacked. They include the naked mole-rat, which lives 10 times longer than expected. "We find that ... the most important factor enabling longer lifespan is the ability to fly," the study, 'Ecology and mode-of-life explain lifespan variation in birds and mammals' says.

Among the longest-living of all animals are bats, but seabirds, parrots, flamingoes and swans also live longer than expected.

Assistant Professor in Zoology Natalie Cooper added: "Our results show that if we want to uncover the secrets of long life, we should expand our search far beyond bats and naked mole rats."

Irish Independent

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