Diving into old age: muscular senescence in a large-bodied, long-lived mammal, the Weddell seal (Leptonychotes weddellii).
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Classic aging theory postulates the absence of pronounced organismal senescence in wild animals since mortality probably occurs first. Large-bodied, long-lived mammals are a recognized exception to this tenet, yet organismal senescence has not been investigated to date in such mammals in the wild. Furthermore, oxidative stress theory of aging supports the suggestion that exercise hypoxia, as regularly incurred during apneustic foraging in diving mammals might lead to cellular dysfunction and accelerated aging. To determine if an aspect of organismal senescence occurs in wild marine mammals, we examined the pattern of skeletal muscle aging (contractile and connective tissue components of longissimus dorsi and pectoralis muscles) in free-ranging adult Weddell seals (9-26 years). The average myocyte cross-sectional area was 22% greater with age in the longissiums dorsi, but no significant increase occurred in the pectoralis. Cross-sectional area was not related to body mass. Changes in myocyte number per area were consistent with the 35-40% age-increase in extracellular space in both muscle groups. Also consistent with extracellular space remodeling, total and relative collagen contents were significantly elevated in older seals (115% in longissimus dorsi; 65% in pectoralis). The ratio of muscle myocyte to collagen declined with age (50-63%) at both sites. Additionally, a shift towards a higher ratio of type I to type III collagen occurred with advancing age in both muscle groups (79% increase in pectoralis; 49% in longissimus dorsi). We reject the classic tenet and null-hypothesis that Weddell seals do not survive to an age where muscular senescence becomes detectable.