Immune profiles vary seasonally, but are not significantly related to migration distance or natal dispersal, in a migratory songbird

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Abstract

A central tenet of ecoimmunology is that an organism's environment shapes its optimal investment in immunity. For example, the benefits of acquired (relatively pathogen specific) versus innate (nonspecific) immune defenses are thought to vary with the risk of encountering familiar versus unfamiliar pathogens. Because pathogen communities vary geographically, individuals that travel farther during seasonal migration or natal dispersal are predicted to have higher exposure to novel pathogens, and lower exposure to familiar pathogens, potentially favoring investment in innate immunity. During the breeding season, migratory animals' exposure to familiar pathogens should increase, potentially favoring investment in acquired immunity. We hypothesized that song sparrows Melospiza melodia adjust their constitutive immune profiles in response to risk of encountering novel versus familiar pathogens. We predicted that individuals migrating longer distances (inferred from stable hydrogen isotope analysis of claws) and less philopatric individuals (inferred from microsatellite assignment testing) would rely more heavily on acquired than innate defenses. We also predicted that reliance on acquired defenses would increase throughout the early breeding season. Consistent with trade-offs between acquired and innate defenses, levels of immunoglobulin Y (acquired) varied negatively with macrophage phagocytosis activity (innate). Levels of acquired relative to innate immunity did not vary significantly with migration distance or philopatry, but increased throughout the early breeding season. Macrophage phagocytosis was not significantly repeatable between years. Song sparrows appear to shift from innate defenses immediately after migration to acquired defenses with increasing time at the breeding grounds. These patterns highlight the plasticity of constitutive immune defenses in migratory animals.

GRAPHICAL ABSTRACT

We examined the balance between innate and acquired constitutive immune defenses in migratory songbirds. Reliance on acquired defense increased throughout early breeding season, but did not vary significantly with migration distance or natal philopatry.

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