The Journal of experimental biology

Photoperiod but not food restriction modulates innate immunity in an opportunistic breeder, Loxia curvirostra.

PMID 27956484


An organism's investment in immune function often varies seasonally but understanding of how fluctuations in environmental conditions directly modulate investment remains limited. This experiment investigated how changes in photoperiod and food availability affect investment in constitutive innate immunity and the acute phase response induced by lipopolysaccharide (LPS) injections in captive red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra). Crossbills are reproductively flexible songbirds that specialize on an unpredictably available food resource and display temporal variation in immunity in the wild. Birds were separated into four treatments and exposed to long or short day lengths for 6 weeks before continuing on an ad libitum diet or experiencing a 20% food reduction for 10 days. Birds were un-injected or injected with LPS both before and after diet change. Innate immunity was quantified throughout the experiment to assess effects of photoperiod, food availability and their interactions on hemolysis-hemagglutination, haptoglobin, bacterial killing ability and leukocyte counts. Overall, increasing day length significantly increased both bacterial killing ability and leukocyte counts. Surprisingly, food restriction had little effect on the immune parameters, potentially owing to the 'low-cost' environment of captivity and suggesting that investment in innate immunity is prioritized and maintained whenever possible. LPS injections induced stereotypical sickness behaviors and increased bacterial killing ability in short day birds and complement activity (hemolysis) both before and after food restriction. These results demonstrate robust seasonal modulation of immune investment and an ability to maintain innate immunity in the face of limited resources in these temporally flexible songbirds.