Inter-sexual differences in T-cell-mediated immunity of black-headed gull chicks (Larus ridibundus) depend on the hatching order
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Hatching asynchrony in avian species leads to age and size differences between nestlings within a brood, handicapping last-hatched chicks in the sibling rivalry. Starvation due to this competitive disadvantage has been regarded as the primary cause of an increase in mortality with hatching order. However, for gulls it has also been suggested that disease is the cause of mortality for last-hatched chicks, possibly through reduced immunocompetence and thereby an enhanced susceptibility to infection. In addition, the male-biased mortality reported for several gull species may be related to a higher vulnerability to diseases in males compared to females. To determine the potential influence of the immune system on these mortality patterns, we investigated the T-cell-mediated immunity (CMI) of black-headed gull chicks in relation to hatching order and sex. We found a significant decrease in the CMI with hatching order. This result may be causally related to systematic changes in maternal yolk steroids and carotenoids within the laying sequence. For second-laid eggs, male CMI was significantly lower than female CMI. This is possibly linked to higher plasma levels of testosterone in male embryos which might have an immunosuppressive effect. If so, this effect is masked in eggs of either high (first egg) or low (last egg) quality. Chicks with low CMI showed enhanced mortality rates. Thus the differences in immune response are likely to contribute to the observed mortality patterns. However, hatching order significantly affected mortality independently of CMI, suggesting that competitive disadvantage due to hatching asynchrony is also important.