Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Article
  • Published:

Diversity of ageing across the tree of life


Evolution drives, and is driven by, demography. A genotype moulds its phenotype’s age patterns of mortality and fertility in an environment; these two patterns in turn determine the genotype’s fitness in that environment. Hence, to understand the evolution of ageing, age patterns of mortality and reproduction need to be compared for species across the tree of life. However, few studies have done so and only for a limited range of taxa. Here we contrast standardized patterns over age for 11 mammals, 12 other vertebrates, 10 invertebrates, 12 vascular plants and a green alga. Although it has been predicted that evolution should inevitably lead to increasing mortality and declining fertility with age after maturity, there is great variation among these species, including increasing, constant, decreasing, humped and bowed trajectories for both long- and short-lived species. This diversity challenges theoreticians to develop broader perspectives on the evolution of ageing and empiricists to study the demography of more species.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Demographic trajectories.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Chiang, C. L. The life table and its applications (Krieger Publishing, 1984)

    Google Scholar 

  2. Caswell, H. Matrix population models (Sinauer Associates, 2001)

    Google Scholar 

  3. Medawar, P. B. An unsolved problem of biology (H. K. Lewis, 1952)

    Google Scholar 

  4. Williams, G. Pleiotropy, natural selection, and the evolution of senescence. Evolution 11, 398–411 (1957)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Hamilton, W. D. The moulding of senescence by natural selection. J. Theor. Biol. 12, 12–45 (1966)

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  6. Kirkwood, T. B. L. Evolution of ageing. Nature 270, 301–304 (1977)

    Article  ADS  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  7. Burger, O., Baudisch, A. & Vaupel, J. W. Human mortality improvement in evolutionary context. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA (15 October 2012)

  8. Baudisch, A. The pace and shape of ageing. Methods Ecol. Evol. 2, 375–382 (2011)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Oeppen, J. & Vaupel, J. W. Broken limits to life expectancy. Science 296, 1029–1031 (2002)

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  10. Horvitz, C. C. & Tuljapurkar, S. Stage dynamics, period survival, and mortality plateaus. Am. Nat. 172, 203–215 (2008)

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  11. Cohen, A. A. Female post-reproductive lifespan: a general mammalian trait. Biol. Rev. Camb. Philos. Soc. 79, 733–750 (2004)

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  12. Vaupel, J. W., Baudisch, A., Dölling, M., Roach, D. A. & Gampe, J. The case for negative senescence. Theor. Popul. Biol. 65, 339–351 (2004)

    Article  PubMed  MATH  Google Scholar 

  13. Gaillard, J.-M. et al. An analysis of demographic tactics in birds and mammals. Oikos 56, 56–76 (1989)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Promislow, D. E. L. & Harvey, P. H. Living fast and dying young: a comparative analysis of life-history variation among mammals. J. Zool. (Lond.) 220, 417–437 (1990)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Stearns, S. C. The Evolution of Life Histories (Oxford Univ. Press, USA, 1992)

    Google Scholar 

  16. Jones, O. R. et al. Senescence rates are determined by ranking on the fast-slow life-history continuum. Ecol. Lett. 11, 664–673 (2008)

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  17. Pearl, R. & Miner, J. R. Experimental studies on the duration of life. XIV. The comparative mortality of certain lower organisms. Q. Rev. Biol. 10, 60–79 (1935)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Deevey, E. S. Life tables for natural populations of animals. Q. Rev. Biol. 22, 283–314 (1947)

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  19. Charmantier, A., Perrins, C., McCleery, R. H. & Sheldon, B. C. Quantitative genetics of age at reproduction in wild swans: Support for antagonistic pleiotropy models of senescence. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 103, 6587–6592 (2006)

    Article  ADS  CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  20. Shefferson, R. P. & Roach, D. A. Longitudinal analysis in Plantago: strength of selection and reverse age analysis reveal age-indeterminate senescence. J. Ecol. 101, 577–584 (2013)

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  21. Tuomi, J. et al. Prolonged dormancy interacts with senescence for two perennial herbs. J. Ecol. 101, 566–576 (2013)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Salguero-Gómez, R., Shefferson, R. P. & Hutchings, M. J. Plants do not count… or do they? New perspectives on the universality of senescence. J. Ecol. 101, 545–554 (2013)

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  23. Baudisch, A. et al. The pace and shape of senescence in angiosperms. J. Ecol. 101, 596–606 (2013)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. McElwee, J. J. et al. Evolutionary conservation of regulated longevity assurance mechanisms. Genome Biol. 8, R132 (2007)

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  CAS  Google Scholar 

  25. Bell, G. Measuring the cost of reproduction. I. The correlation structure of the life table of a plank rotifer. Evolution 38, 300–313 (1984)

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  26. Franco, M. & Silvertown, J. Life history variation in plants: an exploration of the fast-slow continuum hypothesis. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 1341–1348 (1996)

  27. Buss, L. W. Diversification and germ-line determination. Paleobiology 14, 313–321 (1988)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Martínez, D. E. & Levinton, J. S. Asexual metazoans undergo senescence. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 89, 9920–9923 (1992)

    Article  ADS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  29. Baudisch, A. & Vaupel, J. Senescence vs. sustenance: evolutionary-demographic models of aging. Demogr. Res. 23, 655–668 (2010)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Martínez, D. E. Mortality patterns suggest lack of senescence in hydra. Exp. Gerontol. 33, 217–225 (1998)

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  31. Finch, C. E. Longevity, Senescence and the Genome (Univ. Chicago Press, 1994)

    Google Scholar 

  32. Baudisch, A. Inevitable Aging? Contributions to Evolutionary-Demographic Theory (Springer, 2008)

    Google Scholar 

  33. Charnov, E. L. Reproductive constraints and the evolution of life histories with indeterminate growth. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 98, 9460–9464 (2001)

    Article  ADS  CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  34. Medvedev, Z. A. An attempt at a rational classification of theories of ageing. Biol. Rev. Camb. Philos. Soc. 65, 375–398 (1990)

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  35. Kirkwood, T. B. L. Systems biology of ageing and longevity. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 366, 64–70 (2010)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Charlesworth, B. Evolution in Age-structured Populations (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994)

    Book  MATH  Google Scholar 

  37. Caswell, H. Matrix models and sensitivity analysis of populations classified by age and stage: a vec-permutation matrix approach. Theor. Ecol. 5, 403–417 (2012)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Pedersen, B. An evolutionary theory of clonal senescence. Theor. Popul. Biol. 47, 292–320 (1995)

    Article  MATH  Google Scholar 

  39. Caswell, H. in Population Biology and Evolution of Clonal Organisms (eds Jackson, J. B. C., Bus, L. W. & Cook, R. E. ) 187–224 (Yale Univ. Press, 1985)

    Google Scholar 

  40. Caswell, H. & Salguero-Gomez, R. Age, stage and senescence in plants. J. Ecol. 101, 585–595 (2013)

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  41. Orive, M. E. Senescence in organisms with clonal reproduction and complex life histories. Am. Nat. 145, 90–108 (1995)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Baudisch, A. & Vaupel, J. W. Getting to the root of aging. Science 338, 618–619 (2012)

    Article  ADS  CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  43. Gadgil, M. & Bossert, W. H. Life historical consequences of natural selection. Am. Nat. 104, 1–24 (1970)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  44. Schaffer, W. M. Selection for optimal life histories — effects of age structure. Ecology 55, 291–303 (1974)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  45. Vaupel, J. W. et al. Biodemographic trajectories of longevity. Science 280, 855–860 (1998)

    Article  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  46. Chen, J. et al. A demographic analysis of the fitness cost of extended longevity in Caenorhabditis elegans. J. Gerontol. A Biol. Sci. Med. Sci. 62, 126–135 (2007)

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  47. Vaupel, J. W. Biodemography of human ageing. Nature 464, 536–542 (2010)

    Article  ADS  CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  48. Finch, C. E. Update on slow aging and negligible senescence - A mini-review. Gerontology 55, 307–313 (2009)

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  49. Eilers, P. H. C. & Marx, B. D. Flexible smoothing with B-splines and penalties. Stat. Sci. 11, 89–121 (1996)

    Article  MathSciNet  MATH  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank S. Alberts for data on baboon demography, J. Curtsinger for data on Drosophila demography and O. Burger, D. Levitis, B. Pietrzak, F. Quade, F. Ringelhan and L. Vinicius for contributing published data about various species. J.W.V. and A.S. acknowledge support from NIH grant PO1 AG-031719. H.C. acknowledges a Research Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and Advanced Grant 322989 from the European Research Council. R.S.-G. acknowledges support from ARC DP110100727. A.B. acknowledges funding from the Max Planck Society to establish the Max Planck Research Group ‘Modeling the Evolution of Aging’.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



This research project was initiated by J.W.V. A.S. wrote the first draft; O.R.J., with help from A.S., R.S.-G., H.C., A.B. and J.W.V., wrote subsequent drafts; J.W.V. and O.R.J. completed the final draft. The Figure was produced by O.R.J. with suggestions from J.W.V., A.S., A.B. and H.C. A.B. suggested the method of standardization and the distinction between shape and pace. C.G.C. developed methods to smooth mortality and fertility trajectories. H.C. and R.S.-G. contributed to the analysis of stage-classified species. A.S., R.S.-G., O.R.J. and H.C. each provided data, derived from the literature, for several species. R.S. contributed unpublished data for hydra; J.E., J.D. and M.B.G. for Borderea; R.S.-G. and B.B.C. for Cryptantha; and E.M. and P.F.Q.-A. for Hypericum. O.R.J., A.S., R.S.-G. and H.C. screened the species for data quality.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Owen R. Jones.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Standardized mortality trajectories.

a, Trajectories for laboratory rats. b, Trajectories for laboratory mice. Each line represents a different strain, sex or population (see Supplementary Methods for sources). We standardized the age axis to consider the trajectories from age at maturity to the age at which 5% survivorship from maturity occurs. The trajectories were smoothed using P-splines. We then calculated the force of mortality (μx) and standardized it by dividing by the average value, weighted by survivorship from maturity (lx). Note that the sample sizes in most cases were small (approximately 50 to 60 individuals) and thus random fluctuations may lead to erratic curves in some cases.

Related audio


In many species mortality increases with age. But that’s not true across the whole tree of life. Digest the demography with authors Owen Jones and Rob Saluero-Gomez.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Methods split into 4 sections: details of each dataset used in analysis; rationale of data set selection given as response to reviewer; description of calculation of age trajectories of mortality/fertility from stage-classified population projection matrices and finally, the computer code. It also contains a Supplementary Note, the analysis of intraspecific variation in standardised mortality trajectories of laboratory rodents and Supplementary References. (PDF 742 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Source data

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Jones, O., Scheuerlein, A., Salguero-Gómez, R. et al. Diversity of ageing across the tree of life. Nature 505, 169–173 (2014).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing