Variation in immune defence in birds is often explained either by external factors such as food availability and disease pressure or by internal factors such as moult and reproductive effort. We explored these factors together in one sampling design by measuring immune activity over the time frame of the moulting period of Arctic-breeding barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis). We assessed baseline innate immunity by measuring levels of complement-mediated lysis and natural antibody-mediated agglutination together with total and differential leukocyte counts. Variation in immune activity during moult was strongly associated with calendar date and to a smaller degree with the growth stage of wing feathers. We suggest that the association with calendar date reflected temporal changes in the external environment. This environmental factor was further explored by comparing the immune activity of geese in the Arctic population with conspecifics in the temperate climate zone at comparable moult stages. In the Arctic environment, which has a lower expected disease load, geese exhibited significantly lower values of complement-mediated lysis, their blood contained fewer leukocytes, and levels of phagocytic cells and reactive leukocytes were relatively low. This suggests that lower baseline immune activity could be associated with lower disease pressure. We conclude that in our study species, external factors such as food availability and disease pressure have a greater effect on temporal variation of baseline immune activity than internal factors such as moult stage.
Sandström, C. A. M., Prop, J., Van der Jeugd, H., & Loonen, M. J. J. E. (2014). Baseline Immune Activity Is Associated with Date Rather than with Moult Stage in the Arctic-Breeding Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis). PLoS One, 9(12), [e114812]. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0114812