Seasonal modulation of sickness behavior in free-living northwestern song sparrows (Melospiza melodia morphna)

  • Owen-Ashley N
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Abstract

A variety of vertebrate species modulate immune function on a seasonal basis to cope with seasonal energy deficits and competing life-history demands, such as reproduction. Most studies to date have focused upon seasonal variation of cellular and humoral immunity, while neglecting behavioral responses to infection. These behavioral strategies are collectively termed sickness behaviors and are hypothesized to divert energy away from normal activities to combat and overcome infection. Sickness behavior can be triggered experimentally by injecting bacterial lipopolysaccharide (LPS). In this study, we provide the first evidence for seasonal modulation of sickness behavior in a free-living animal. Male song sparrows of western Washington state (Melospiza melodia morphna) are sedentary and territorial year round, except for a brief time during molt. Treatment with LPS decreased territorial aggressive behavior of males in the winter (nonbreeding), but not in the spring (breeding). Subjects were recaptured approx. 25 h after treatment. Recaptured LPS males in the winter lost more body mass than saline-injected controls while LPS males in the spring did not. These data indicate that birds in breeding condition were relatively insensitive to the effects of LPS. On a proximate level, suppression of sickness behavior during breeding is likely mediated by seasonal differences in energy allocation, as wintering sparrows were significantly heavier and had larger subcutaneous fat reserves and lower baseline corticosterone levels than breeding birds. Ultimately, suppression of sickness behavior may represent an allocation strategy to balance current reproductive opportunities with the life-history costs of self-defense.

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Authors

  • N. T. Owen-Ashley

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