Immune function differs among tropical environments but is not downregulated during reproduction in three year-round breeding equatorial lark populations

Ndithia, Henry K.; Matson, Kevin D.; Muchai, Muchane; Tieleman, B.I.


Seasonal variation in immune function can be attributed to life history trade-offs, and to variation in environmental conditions. However, because phenological stages and environmental conditions co-vary in temperate and arctic zones, their separate contributions have not been determined. We compared immune function and body mass of incubating (female only), chick-feeding (female and male), and non-breeding (female and male) red-capped larks Calandrella cinerea breeding year-round in three tropical equatorial (Kenya) environments with distinct climates. We measured four immune indices: haptoglobin, nitric oxide, agglutination, and lysis. To confirm that variation in immune function between breeding (i.e., incubating or chick-feeding) and non-breeding was not confounded by environmental conditions, we tested if rainfall, average minimum temperature (Tmin), and average maximum temperature (Tmax) differed during sampling times among the three breeding statuses per location. Tmin and Tmax differed between chick-feeding and non-breeding, suggesting that birds utilized environmental conditions differently in different locations for reproduction. Immune indices did not differ between incubating, chick-feeding and non-breeding birds in all three locations. There were two exceptions: nitric oxide was higher during incubation in cool and wet South Kinangop, and it was higher during chick-feeding in the cool and dry North Kinangop compared to non-breeding birds in these locations. For nitric oxide, agglutination, and lysis, we found among-location differences within breeding stage. In equatorial tropical birds, variation in immune function seems to be better explained by among-location climate-induced environmental conditions than by breeding status. Our findings raise questions about how within-location environmental variation relates to and affects immune function.