Within individuals, immunity may compete with other life history traits for resources, such as energy and protein, and the damage caused by immunopathology can sometimes outweigh the protective benefits that immune responses confer. However, our understanding of the costs of immunity in the wild and how they relate to the myriad energetic demands on free-ranging organisms is limited. The endangered Galapagos sea lion (Zalophus wollebaeki) is threatened simultaneously by disease from domestic animals and rapid changes in food availability driven by unpredictable environmental variation. We made use of this unique ecology to investigate the relationship between changes in immune activity and changes in body condition. We found that during the first three months of life, changes in antibody concentration were negatively correlated with changes in mass per unit length, skinfold thickness and serum albumin concentration, but only in a sea lion colony exposed to anthropogenic environmental impacts. It has previously been shown that changes in antibody concentration during early Galapagos sea lion development were higher in a colony exposed to anthropogenic environmental impacts than in a control colony. This study allows for the possibility that these relatively large changes in antibody concentration are associated with negative impacts on fitness through an effect on body condition. Our findings suggest that energy availability and the degree of plasticity in immune investment may influence disease risk in natural populations synergistically, through a trade-off between investment in immunity and resistance to starvation. The relative benefits of such investments may change quickly and unpredictably, which allows for the possibility that individuals fine-tune their investment strategies in response to changes in environmental conditions. In addition, our results suggest that anthropogenic environmental impacts may impose subtle energetic costs on individuals, which could contribute to population declines, especially in times of energy shortage. © 2013 Brock et al.
Brock, P. M., Hall, A. J., Goodman, S. J., Cruz, M., & Acevedo-Whitehouse, K. (2013). Immune Activity, Body Condition and Human-Associated Environmental Impacts in a Wild Marine Mammal. PLoS ONE, 8(6). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0067132