Immunocompetence and nestling survival in the house martin: the tasty chick hypothesis

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In altricial birds post-fledging survival is usually positively related to nestling body mass. A large number of studies have shown that the latest hatched chick is the more likely to die, even if food is abundant. Here we suggest that ectoparasites may be a key factor in the evolution and the maintenance of the establishment of weight hierarchies within broods. We propose the hypothesis that weight hierarchies within broods may be adaptive if the chick in poor condition is the one with the least efficient immune system within a nest. In this case parasites would preferentially feed on such a "tasty chick", because it would allow high reproductive rates for the parasites, without negatively affecting the survival of the other nestlings. This could prevent entire nest failure of the brood or allow the other chicks to grow more efficiently. This hypothesis was investigated in a colony of house martinsDelichon urbica. We predicted that immunocompetence was positively correlated with body condition, and that nestlings dying before fledging should have lower immune responses when challenged with an antigen. T-cell immune response to an experimentally injected antigen was strongly positively related to body condition. Non-surviving chicks had low body condition and a weak immune response. The implications of these results are discussed in the context of the adaptive significance of hatching asynchrony.

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