Brood size and environmental conditions sex-specifically affect nestling immune response in the European starling Sturnus vulgaris

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Journal of Avian Biology





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In sexually size-dimorphic species, the larger sex can be more sensitive to stressful environmental conditions, often resulting in reduced growth and elevated mortality rates. Development of the immune system is regarded as highly resource dependent, and recent data suggest that nestling passerines experience a possible resource-based trade-off between growth and immunity. Given the hypothesized importance of maximizing growth for the larger sex, the corresponding immune system may also exhibit similar sensitivity to limited resources. To better understand how natural variation in brood size and resources might differentially affect growth and immune function in nestlings of a sexually size-dimorphic species, we examined the relationship between brood size and inter-sexual differences in cell-mediated immunity (CMI) and survival in European starling Sturnus vulgaris nestlings where males are larger in both mass and structural size. We hypothesized that male CMI response should be negatively impacted by increasing sibling competition (brood size), especially during periods of low resource availability. In a year of reduced parental provisioning rates and reduced chick growth rates, male offspring exhibited the predicted negative relationship, whereas female CMI response was unaffected. However, in a year of improved provisioning rates and chick growth, neither sex exhibited a negative relationship between immune response and brood size. Thus, natural variation in brood size can affect sex-specific immunity differently in offspring of a sexually size-dimorphic passerine. However, this relationship appears resource-dependent, suggesting that the hypothesized resource-based trade-off may be compensated for in years of adequate resource abundance.