A comparative study of white blood cell counts and disease risk in carnivores

  • Nunn C
  • Gittleman J
  • Antonovics J
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In primates, baseline levels of white blood cell (WBC) counts are related to mating promiscuity. It was hypothesized that differences in the primate immune system reflect pathogen risks from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Here, we test for the generality of this result by examining hypotheses involving behavioural, ecological and life-history factors in carnivores. Again, we find a significant correlation in carnivores between mating promiscuity and elevated levels of WBC counts. In addition, we find relationships with measures of sociality, substrate use and life-history parameters. These comparative results across independent taxonomic orders indicate that the evolution of the immune system, as represented by phylogenetic differences in basal levels of blood cell counts, is closely linked to disease risk involved with promiscuous mating and associated variables. We found only limited support for an association between the percentage of meat in the diet and WBC counts, which is consistent with the behavioural and physiological mechanisms that carnivores use to avoid parasite transmission from their prey. We discuss additional comparative questions related to taxonomic differences in disease risk, modes of parasite transmission and implications for conservation biology.

Author-supplied keywords

  • animal diseases
  • animal diseases blood
  • animal diseases parasitology
  • animal diseases transmission
  • animals
  • body weight
  • carnivora
  • carnivora blood
  • disease susceptibility
  • leukocyte count
  • phylogeny
  • predatory behavior
  • regression analysis

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  • Charles L Nunn

  • John L Gittleman

  • Janis Antonovics

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