Immune function in a free-living bird varies over the annual cycle, but seasonal patterns differ between years

Arne Hegemann, Kevin D. Matson, Christiaan Both, B. Irene Tieleman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A central hypothesis of eco-immunology proposes trade-offs between immune defences and competing physiological and behavioural processes, leading to immunological variation within and among annual-cycle stages, as has been revealed for some species. However, few studies have simultaneously investigated patterns of multiple immune indices over the entire annual cycle in free-living birds, and none has investigated the consistency of seasonal patterns across multiple years. We quantified lysis, agglutination, haptoglobin, leukocyte profiles, and body mass in free-living skylarks (Alauda arvensis) through two complete annual cycles and within and between four breeding seasons. The skylarks' annual cycle is characterised by annually repeated changes in energy and time budgets, social structure and diet. If trade-offs relating to these cyclic changes shape evolution, predictable intra-annual immune patterns may result. Alternatively, intra-annual immune patterns may vary among years if fluctuating environmental changes affect the cost-benefit balances of immune function. We found significant variation in immune indices and body mass across the annual cycle, and these patterns differed between years. Immune parameters differed between four breeding seasons, and in all years, lysis and agglutination increased as the season progressed independent of average levels. Population-level patterns (intra-annual, inter-annual, within breeding season) were consistent with within-individual patterns based on repeated measurements. We found little evidence for sex differences, and only haptoglobin was correlated (negatively) with body mass. We conclude that immune modulation is not simply a pre-programmed phenomenon that reflects predictable ecological changes. Instead, fluctuating environmental conditions that vary among years likely contribute to the immunological variation that we observed.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)605-618
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2012
Externally publishedYes

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Biological Sciences

Free keywords

  • Ecoimmunology
  • Immunity
  • Life cycle
  • Seasonality
  • Trade-off


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