Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 55, Issue 1, pp 50–59 | Cite as

Testosterone, dominance signalling and immunosuppression in the house sparrow, Passer domesticus

  • K. L. Buchanan
  • M. R. Evans
  • A. R. Goldsmith
Original Article


The immunocompetence handicap hypothesis (ICHH) suggests that dominance signals are costly because their development is controlled by testosterone, which is immunosuppressive. Signal control therefore links an increased disease risk with a high quality signal. The chest bib of the house sparrow, Passer domesticus, is a signal known to be related to dominance and under control of testosterone levels. We experimentally manipulated testosterone in male sparrows during the breeding season and again independently during the post-breeding period to test whether variation in levels of testosterone could cause variation in levels of immunocompetence. There was no effect of testosterone manipulation on the cell-mediated response of birds to phytohaemagglutinin injection, nor did testosterone levels appear to affect either white blood cell ratios or red blood cell counts. In contrast, both breeding season and post-breeding season testosterone levels had significant effects upon the humoral response of the birds to sheep red blood cell injections. However, whilst testosterone during the breeding season appeared to act immunosuppressively, the role of post-breeding levels is less clear. In concordance with a previous study, there was an indication that corticosterone is involved in mediating the immunosuppressive effects of testosterone. The strength of the secondary humoral response and the cell-mediated response were negatively related suggesting the possibility of a trade-off between the different arms of the immune system. These results provide some support for the ICHH as a mechanism promoting the evolution of costly badges of status, although the results question whether the immunosuppressive cost can be mediated by testosterone at the time of badge development.


Badges of status Dominance Immunocompetence Signal evolution. 



We thank Alasdair Sherman for caring for the birds, Kirsty Park and Louise Rowe for help in the field and the laboratory and local landowners for access for mistnetting. We also thank two anonymous referees for constructive comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript. K.L.B. was supported by the Natural Environmental Research Council grant GR3/11426. All experiments were conducted under Home Office Licence (PPL 60/2256) and comply with U.K. legal requirements.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2003

Authors and Affiliations

  • K. L. Buchanan
    • 1
    • 3
  • M. R. Evans
    • 1
  • A. R. Goldsmith
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of StirlingStirlingUK
  2. 2.School of Biological SciencesUniversity of BristolBristolUK
  3. 3.Cardiff School of BiosciencesCardiff UniversityCardiffUK

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