, Volume 146, Issue 4, pp 505–512 | Cite as

Incubation period and immune function: a comparative field study among coexisting birds

  • Maria G. Palacios
  • Thomas E. Martin


Developmental periods are integral components of life history strategies that can have important fitness consequences and vary enormously among organisms. However, the selection pressures and mechanisms causing variation in length of developmental periods are poorly understood. Particularly puzzling are prolonged developmental periods, because their selective advantage is unclear. Here we tested the hypotheses that immune function is stronger in species that are attacked at a higher rate by parasites and that prolonged embryonic development allows the development of this stronger immune system. Through a comparative field study among 12 coexisting passerine bird species, we show that species with higher blood parasite prevalence mounted stronger cellular immune responses than species with lower prevalence. These results provide support for the hypothesis that species facing greater selection pressure from parasites invest more in immune function. However, species with longer incubation periods mounted weaker cellular immune responses than species with shorter periods. Therefore, cellular immune responses do not support the hypothesis that longer development time enhances immunocompentence. Future studies should assess other components of the immune system and test alternative causes of variation in incubation periods among bird species.


Blood parasites Development Immunocompetence Life history Passerines 



We thank S. Pearson, M. Agudelo, A. Evans, R. Ton, and T.J. Fontaine for important assistance in the field, and C. Vleck and M. Haussmann for valuable comments on previous versions of this manuscript. We also thank Mark Chappell and Jose Luis Tella for thoughtfull reviews that helped improve our manuscript. This work was supported by a National Science Foundation grant (DEB-9707598 and DEB-9981527) to TEM. PHA measurements of nestlings were made in accordance with standard animal care protocols and approved by The University of Montana Animal Care and Use Committee.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research UnitUniversity of MontanaMissoulaUSA
  2. 2.US Geological Survey, Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research UnitUniversity of MontanaMissoulaUSA
  3. 3.Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal BiologyIowa State UniversityAmesUSA

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