Fitness costs of an immune response in the house martin (Delichon urbica)
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Immune responses constitute a major way for hosts to defend themselves against parasites. Because hosts do not habitually produce strong responses all the time, immune responses might be costly to produce or maintain. We tested experimentally if the production of a response to a challenge with a novel antigen resulted in a cost in terms of fitness using the highly colonial house martin Delichon urbica as a model system. We injected adult breeding birds during laying of the first clutch with either Newcastle disease virus (NDV) or a control injection, and the clutch was subsequently removed to induce relaying. NDV stimulates the non-specific immune system, causing production of antibodies during a period of more than 2 weeks. Accordingly, we found an increase in leukocyte counts in experimental birds compared to controls. Experimental treatment reduced the frequency of re-laying, caused a delay in timing of relaying and a reduction in brood size. Quality of nestlings in terms of body size, body mass and T-cell-mediated immune response did not differ significantly between treatments. Overall, seasonal reproductive success differed significantly between treatments, showing that the production of an immune response by adult birds is costly in terms of future fecundity.