Social isolation shortens telomeres in African Grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus erithacus).

Parrot lifespan and health likely to be affected by social isolation

Source: Aydinonat D, Penn DJ, Smith S, Moodley Y, Hoelzl F, Knauer F, Schwarzenberger F.
PLoS ONE, 9(4): doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0093839. (2014)

Parrots are often kept alone as pets, though they live in groups in the wild, so social isolation is likely to cause stress in these social creatures. Stress and ageing are linked to a decrease in the length of telomeres, which are the ends of chromosomes. Telomeres help to keep chromosomes stable and control the ageing of cells. Individuals with shorter telomeres tend to be more susceptible to a range of diseases, and their lifespans tend to be shorter.

Forty five captive African Grey parrots were tested for telomere length, to see how this might be affected by social isolation. Twenty six of the parrots were kept alone, and nineteen were kept in pairs. They were between 0.75 and 45 years old. Differences in telomere length were measured by analyzing blood samples.

Telomeres tended to be shorter the older the parrot, and to be shorter in parrots kept alone compared with parrots kept in pairs. Parrots kept alone had telomeres of a similar length to parrots kept in pairs hat were much older. This is evidence that telomere length in parrots is affected by social isolation, and is a marker that indicates that an individual has suffered chronic stress. Previous studies focused on the endocrinological and neurochemical effects of social isolation.

Wild African Grey parrots roost in very large flocks of thousands of birds, and forage in smaller groups of 30 or fewer parrots. They are also monogamous. Captive parrots are often kept alone, and this has been linked to linked to feather plucking, screaming, aggression, fear of anything new (neophobia),and chronic illnesses. Hand-rearing (by humans) also leads to permanent changes in parrot behaviour, some of which can be problematic.

Shorter telomere length did not appear to be linked to current poor health in the parrots studied, though telomere length may have been affected by isolation in the past, as well as in the present. Further research is needed to investigate the link between isolation, health and telomere length in parrots. This study indicates that social isolation is likely to cause long-term physiological and behavioral problems, in African Greys raised with their parents, as well as in parrots raised by hand.