Immune challenge mediates vocal communication in a passerine bird: an experiment

Collared Flycatcher (Ficedula albicollis) Science Article 3


Secondary sexual characters may have evolved in part to signal resistance to parasites. Avian song has been hypothesized to be involved in this process, but the role of parasites in modulating acoustic communication systems in birds remains largely unknown, owing to lack of experiments. We studied the relationship between parasitism, testosterone, song performance, and mating success in male collared flycatchers (Ficedula albicollis) by experimentally challenging their immune system with a novel antigen. We predicted that a challenge of the immune system would reduce song performance, and that this reduction would be conditional on the size of a visual sexual signal, the forehead patch that was previously found to reflect resistance. An antagonistic linkage between testosterone and immune function would predict that a challenge of the immune system should suppress testosterone level. An immunological treatment by sheep red blood cells (SRBCs) triggered a decrease in body mass, testosterone level, and song rate, but other song traits were not significantly affected by the antigen challenge. Initial testosterone level was associated with forehead patch size and all song traits except song rate. SRBC injection caused stronger reduction in song rate among males with smaller forehead patches, and the change in song rate was also predictable by song features such as strophe complexity and length. We show that song rate and other song characteristics may be important cues in male-male competition and female choice. These results suggest that parasite-mediated sexual selection has contributed in shaping a complex acoustic communication system in the collared flycatcher, and that testosterone may play an important role in this process. Parasitism may drive a multiple signaling mechanism involving acoustic and visual traits with different signal function.

Laszlo Zsolt Garamszegi, Anders Pape Moller et al., Behavioral Ecology Vol. 15 No. 1: 148-157

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