Immune adaptations of obligate brood parasites attracted interest when three New World cowbird species (Passeriformes, Icteridae, genus Molothrus) proved unusually resistant to West Nile virus. We have used cowbirds as models to investigate the eco-immunological hypothesis that species in parasite-rich environments characteristically have enhanced immunity as a life history adaptation. As part of an ongoing program to understand the cowbird immune system, in this study we measured degranulation and oxidative burst, two fundamental responses of the innate immune system. Innate immunity provides non-specific, fast-acting defenses against a variety of invading pathogens, and we hypothesized that innate immunity experiences particularly strong selection in cowbirds, because their life history strategy exposes them to diverse novel and unpredictable parasites. We compared the relative effectiveness of degranulation and oxidative burst responses in two cowbird species and one related, non-parasitic species. Both innate immune defenses were significantly more functionally efficient in the two parasitic cowbird species than in the non-parasitic red-winged blackbird (Icteridae, Agelaius phoeniceus). Additionally, both immune defenses were more functionally efficient in the brown-headed cowbird (M. ater), an extreme host-generalist brood parasite, than in the bronzed cowbird (M. aeneus), a moderate host-specialist with lower exposure to other species and their parasites. Thus the relative effectiveness of these two innate immune responses corresponds to the diversity of parasites in the niche of each species and to their relative resistance to WNV. This study is the first use of these two specialized assays in a comparative immunology study of wild avian species.
Additional publication details
Obligate brood parasites show more functionally effective innate immune responses: an eco-immunological hypothesis