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Blood parasites in the Blue-crowned Manakin

Can levels of the hormone corticosterone predict parasite infections in this tropical bird?

Jente Ottenburghs
Uppsala University, Sweden

LINKED PAPER
Individual variation in feather corticosterone levels and its influence on haemosporidian infection in a Neotropical bird. Bolsholn, M., Anciaes, M., Weckstein, J. D., Dispoto, J. H. & Fecchio, A. 2019. IBIS. DOI: 10.1111/ibi.12709. VIEW

The hormone corticosterone plays a vital role in the energy regulation of birds (Schoech et al. 2011). But too much of this hormone can have negative health effects, including suppression of the immune system. This makes individuals more susceptible to infections (Roberts et al. 2004). From this information, we can formulate a simple prediction: birds with higher levels of corticosterone will have more parasite infections. An international team of ornithologists tested this prediction in the Blue-crowned Manakin (Lepidothrix coronata), a small songbird common in Amazonian Brazil.

Blood parasites
The researchers captured 82 manakins and checked their blood for parasites using a genetic approach. If the birds are infected with blood parasites, the DNA of these critters should be detectable. The genetic analyses revealed that half of the sampled manakins were infected with blood parasites, representing nine different types. Young individuals had higher infection rates compared to adults. Their immune system is probably less well developed, making them more susceptible to infections (Sol et al. 2003, van Oers et al. 2010).

Figure 1 There is no difference in corticosterone level between infected and uninfected birds. The open circles indicate corticosterone levels for individual birds, the black circles represent the mean value.

Explanations
We predicted a positive relationship between corticosterone levels and parasite infections, namely infected birds should have higher levels of corticosterone. This was, surprisingly, not the case: corticosterone levels did not differ between infected and uninfected individuals. What could explain this result? The researchers offer two possible reasons. Perhaps the corticosterone levels did not reach sufficiently high levels to affect the birds’ immune system. Only extremely high levels might result in serious health issues (Romero et al. 2009). Alternatively, individuals with high corticosterone levels and high parasite infections did not survive and were not included in the sampling. It seems likely that other (ecological) factors determine the occurrence of blood parasite infections in the Blue-crowned Manakin.

References

Roberts, M. L., Buchanan, K. L., & Evans, M. R. 2004. Testing the immunocompetence handicap hypothesis: a review of the evidence. Animal Behaviour 68: 227-239. VIEW

Romero, L. M., Dickens, M. J., & Cyr, N. E. 2009. The reactive scope model — A new model integrating homeostasis, allostasis, and stress. Hormones and Behavior 55: 375-289. VIEW

Schoech, S. J., Rensel, M. A., & Heiss, R. S. 2011. Short- and long-term effects of developmental corticosterone exposure on avian physiology, behavioral phenotype, cognition, and fitness: A review. Current Zoology 57: 514-530. VIEW

Sol, D., Jovani, R., & Torres, J. 2003. Parasite mediated mortality and host immune response explain age-related differences in blood parasitism in birds. Oecologia 135: 542-547. VIEW

van Oers, K., Richardson, D. S., Sæther, S. A., & Komdeur, J. 2010. Reduced blood parasite prevalence with age in the Seychelles Warbler: selective mortality or suppression of infection? Journal of Ornithology 151: 69-77. VIEW

About the author

Jente Ottenburghs is the BOU’s Journal Publicity Officer and resident science writer. A postdoc at Uppsala University in Sweden, he is a curious evolutionary biologist with a passion for writing. He obtained his PhD from Wageningen University (the Netherlands) where he studied the genetic consequences of hybridization between several goose species. Currently, he is extending this line of research at Uppsala University. Apart from his goose work, Jente manages the Avian Hybrids Project, a website and blog that gathers the scientific literature on hybridization in birds.

Jente’s personal website
View Jente’s profile on ResearchGate
Follow Jente on Twitter @Jente_O

Image credits

Top right: Blue-crowned Manakin Lepidothrix coronata | Ltoniolo | CC BY-SA 4.0 Wikimedia Commons

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