Flying with diverse passengers: greater richness of parasitic nematodes in migratory birds

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Abstract

Environmental changes are simultaneously affecting parasitic diseases and animal migrations, making it important to understand the disease dynamics of migratory species, including their range of infections and investment into defences. There is an urgent need for such knowledge because migratory animals, especially birds, are important for pathogen transmission and also particularly sensitive to environmental changes. Here we compare the nematode species richness and relative immune investment (via relative spleen size) of almost 200 migratory and non-migratory species within three diverse groups of birds (Anseriformes, Accipitriformes and Turdidae) with worldwide distributions and varied ecology. Our results provide the first large-scale demonstration that migratory birds face greater challenge from macroparasites as they have significantly dissimilar nematode fauna and higher nematode species richness compared to non-migratory species. Even though birds with relatively large spleens had more nematode species, there was no difference in relative spleen size between migratory and non-migratory bird species. The physiological stress of migration can be exacerbated by the potential range of pathologies induced by their richer nematode communities, particularly in combination with environmental perturbations. Altered migration stemming from global changes can also have important consequences for nematode transmission.

Synthesis

Most studies on parasites of migratory birds versus non-migratory birds focus upon blood parasites; here we compared the diversity of another important parasite group – nematodes (roundworms) in three orders of birds. We found for any given order, migratory species and species with proportionally larger spleens generally have a wider range of nematodes. It is unclear why migratory species harbour more nematode species. Global climate change is expected to influence both bird migration patterns and infectious diseases, which may increase host susceptibility to parasitism and also introduce diverse nematodes to new areas and potential hosts.

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