Ectoparasites as developmental stressors: Effects on somatic and physiological development

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Developmental stress can alter resource allocation in early life, and in altricial birds with rapid developmental trajectories and high resource demands, nestlings may adjust early resource partitioning to cope with challenging environments. We experimentally manipulated ectoparasite levels in nests and assessed whether ectoparasites affected somatic and physiological development in European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) nestlings. We hypothesized that mites act as developmental stressors in nestlings and predicted that nestlings from infested nests would exhibit either reduced somatic growth, or reduced physiological development, including impaired innate immunity, and would have elevated corticosterone concentrations. We either added ≈200 mites to nests during early incubation, or treated nests with a pesticide, permethrin, to reduce mites and possibly other arthropods. We assessed treatment effects on egg spottiness and mite abundance, and monitored offspring hatching and survival. We also measured somatic growth (mass, tarsus length, and feather growth), hematocrit, immune-related metrics (bacterial killing ability [BKA] and spleen mass), and baseline corticosterone concentrations in response to treatment. Compared with mite treatment, permethrin reduced egg spottiness and mite abundance in nests. Relative to nestlings in mite-reduced nests, nestlings in mite-enhanced nests had lower survival, hematocrit, and corticosterone concentrations. Early in development, nestlings from both treatments exhibited similar rapid somatic growth, yet mite-treated nestlings exhibited lower BKA. Nestlings in both treatments increased BKA across development, despite nestlings in mite-treated nests exhibiting lower mass as nest leaving neared. Overall, we found evidence that mites can act as development stressors, but contrary to our prediction, mites decreased corticosterone concentrations.

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