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The rapid geographic spread of West Nile Virus [WNV, Flaviviridae, Flavivirus] across the United States has stimulated interest in comparative host infection studies of avian species to delineate competent reservoir hosts critical for viral amplification. Striking taxonomic differences in avian susceptibility have been noted, offering the opportunity to strategically select species on the basis of life history traits to examine aspects of pathogen virulence or host immunity. We hypothesized that avian brood parasites would show increased resistance to pathogens compared to related taxa, because they have been exposed in their evolutionary history to a wide array of infectious organisms from their different parenting species. The Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) is a generalist brood parasite that parasitizes 200+ North American species. Elevated exposure to other species? parasites may have created an unusual degree of pathogen resistance. We compared the relative susceptibility of adult cowbirds to three closely-related non-parasitic species, Red-winged blackbirds, Tricolored blackbirds and Brewer?s blackbirds, to invading NY99 strain of WNV that is highly virulent for many passeriform birds. Previously we had experimentally infected these species with two North American mosquitoborne encephalitis viruses, western equine encephalomyelitis virus [WEEV, Togaviridae, Alphavirus] and St. Louis encephalitis virus [SLEV, Flaviviridae, Flavivirus]. Our results showed that cowbirds exhibited significantly lower viremia responses against all three viruses as well as after co-infection with both WEEV and WNV than did the three related, non-parasitic species. These data supported our hypothesis and indicated that cowbirds were more resistant to infection to both native and introduced viruses.
Additional Publication Details
Parasitic Cowbirds have increased immunity to West Nile and other mosquitoborne encephalitis viruses