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Are avian blood parasites pathogenic in the wild? A medication experiment in blue tits (Parus caeruleus)

Santiago Merino, Juan Moreno, Juan José Sanz, Elena Arriero

Abstract

The Hamilton and Zuk hypothesis on haemoparasite–mediated sexual selection and certain studies of reproductive costs are based on the assumption that avian blood parasite infections are detrimental to their hosts. However, there is no experimental evidence demonstrating harmful effects of blood parasites on fitness in wild populations, it even having been suggested that they may be non–pathogenic. Only an experimental manipulation of natural blood parasite loads may reveal their harmful effects. In this field experiment we reduced through medication the intensity of infection by Haemoproteus majoris and the prevalence of infection by Leucocytozoon majoris in blue tits (Parus caeruleus), and demonstrated detrimental effects of natural levels of infection by these common parasite species on host reproductive success and condition. The fact that some of the costs of infection were paid by offspring indicates that blood parasites reduce parental working capacity while feeding nestlings. Medicated females may be able to devote more resources to parental care through being released from the drain imposed upon them by parasites and/or through a reduced allocation to an immune response. Therefore, this work adds support to previous findings relating host's life–history traits and haematozoan infections.

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