Does avian malaria infection affect feather stable isotope signatures?
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It is widely accepted that stable isotope ratios in inert tissues such as feather keratin reflect the dietary isotopic signature at the time of the tissue synthesis. However, some elements such as stable nitrogen isotopes can be affected by individual physiological state and nutritional stress. Using malaria infection experiment protocols, we estimated the possible effect of malaria parasite infections on feather carbon (delta C-13) and nitrogen (delta N-15) isotope signatures in juvenile common crossbills Loxia curvirostra. The birds were experimentally infected with Plasmodium relictum (lineage SGS1) and P. ashfordi (GRW2), two widespread parasites of passerines. Experimental birds developed heavy parasitemia of both parasites and maintained high levels throughout the experiment (33 days). We found no significant difference between experimental and control birds in both delta C-13 and delta N-15 values of feathers re-grown. The study shows that even heavy primary infections of malaria parasites do not affect feather delta C-13 and delta N-15 isotopic signatures. The results of this experiment demonstrate that feather isotope values of wild-caught birds accurately reflect the dietary isotopic sources at the time of tissue synthesis even when the animal's immune system might be challenged due to parasitic infection.