Haemosporidian parasites depress breeding success and plumage coloration in female barn swallows (Hirundo rustica)

Romano, Andrea; Nodari, Riccardo; Bandi, Claudio; Caprioli, Manuela; Costanzo, Alessandra; Ambrosini, Roberto; Rubolini, D.; Parolini, Marco; Epis, Sara; Saino, Nicola

18 December 2018

Parasites are major effectors of natural selection and also play a role in sexual selection processes. Haemosporidian blood parasites are common in vertebrates and have been shown to vary in their effects depending on both the parasite and host species, on the host trait investigated as well as on host condition and stage of infection. Here we investigated infection of adult barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) by Plasmodium, Leucocytozoon and Haemoproteus species during the chronic stage of infection and the consequences for host fitness traits. Prevalence was higher than 10% only for Plasmodium. Chronic stage infection by Plasmodium was associated with reduced female breeding success, but did not affect breeding dates. Infection did not affect the expression of male secondary sexual traits (tail length and melanin-based plumage coloration), but was associated with paler coloration of females. Finally, we found a negative effect of infection by Plasmodium on feather growth rate in older but not in yearling individuals. Because feathers are moulted during wintering in sub-Saharan Africa where infection of barn swallows by Plasmodium occurs, our results suggest that male secondary sexual traits have little potential to reveal acute-stage infection whereas plumage coloration of females may advertise their infection status. In addition, these results suggest that infection by Plasmodium can influence the course of plumage moult. Thus, our results add to the observations of negative effects of haemosporidian infection on fitness traits in birds and provides evidence that these effects can vary among traits and in relation to age and sex.