Body-mass-dependent trade-off between immune response and uropygial gland size in house sparrows Passer domesticus

Gregorio Moreno-Rueda

Published online: 
24 July 2014

Parasites greatly impact host fitness. The immune system is fundamental to combat endoparasites, and survival increases with greater investment in immunity. Some ectoparasites, by contrast, are reportedly combated by the use of the uropygial gland, an organ exclusive to birds, which secretes an oily substance (preen oil) that is spread on plumage. However, both mounting an immune response against a parasite and producing uropygial gland secretion depend on the same resources, a situation which may induce trade-offs between the two antiparasitic functions. In this study, I experimentally test whether immune response is traded off against uropygial gland size in the house sparrow Passer domesticus. In the experiment, a group of sparrows were injected with an antigen (lipopolysaccharide, LPS), which stimulates the immune system, while the other group received a sham injection. The uropygial gland of LPS-treated birds decreased significantly more than that of the control birds after treatment. Nevertheless, the effect of the treatment was limited to house sparrows with low body mass, suggesting that heavy house sparrows were able to produce an immune response while maintaining a relatively large uropygial gland. Given that uropygial gland size is strongly related to production of preen oil, these results suggest that preen oil production declines in birds in poor body condition when resources are preferentially diverted to other demanding functions, such as the immune system. Considering that the uropygial gland is involved in several fitness-related processes in birds, the trade-off between immune response and uropygial gland size may have important consequences for bird life histories.