PloS one

Investment in constitutive immune function by North American elk experimentally maintained at two different population densities.

PMID 25992627


Natural selection favors individuals that respond with effective and appropriate immune responses to macro or microparasites. Animals living in populations close to ecological carrying capacity experience increased intraspecific competition, and as a result are often in poor nutritional condition. Nutritional condition, in turn, affects the amount of endogenous resources that are available for investment in immune function. Our objective was to understand the relationship between immune function and density dependence mediated by trade-offs between immune function, nutritional condition, and reproduction. To determine how immune function relates to density-dependent processes, we quantified bacteria killing ability, hemolytic-complement activity, and nutritional condition of North American elk (Cervus elaphus) from populations maintained at experimentally high- and low-population densities. When compared with elk from the low-density population, those from the high-density population had higher bacteria killing ability and hemolytic-complement activity despite their lower nutritional condition. Similarly, when compared with adults, yearlings had higher bacteria killing ability, higher hemolytic-complement activity, and lower nutritional condition. Pregnancy status and lactational status did not change either measure of constitutive immunity. Density-dependent processes affected both nutritional condition and investment in constitutive immune function. Although the mechanism for how density affects immunity is ambiguous, we hypothesize two possibilities: (i) individuals in higher population densities and in poorer nutritional condition invested more into constitutive immune defenses, or (ii) had higher parasite loads causing higher induced immune responses. Those explanations are not mutually exclusive, and might be synergistic, but overall our results provide stronger support for the hypothesis that animals in poorer nutritional condition invest more in constitutive immune defenses then animals in better nutritional condition. This intriguing hypothesis should be investigated further within the larger framework of the cost and benefit structure of immune responses.