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Reduced immunocompetence and cost of reproduction in common eiders

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Immunocompetence may be especially important in long-lived species where infectious organisms may have detrimental effects upon future reproductive value of hosts. The resource demand for immunocompetence may reduce resource availability for reproduction and a trade-off between these traits has therefore been proposed. Capital breeders, such as the common eider (Somateria mollissima), rely upon accumulated body reserves during reproduction. Eiders lose more than 40% of pre-breeding body mass during egglaying and incubation and many females abandon their ducklings to other females after hatching. Results from our observational study show that levels of leukocytes (i.e., lymphocytes, heterophils and heterophil/lymphocyte ratio) are not related to body mass early in the incubation period. However, eider females with low initial body mass showed signs of immunosuppression (i.e., decreased late levels of lymphocytes) and increased response towards stressors (i.e., increased heterophil/lymphocyte ratio) later in the incubation period. Moreover, females with low lymphocyte levels more frequently abandoned their brood, and females abandoning young had an increased return rate to the next breeding season. However, among brood abandoning females return rate was lower for the females with low lymphocyte levels. These results suggest that immunosuppression, as indicated by low lymphocyte levels, is a reproductive cost that may be partly compensated for by abandoning young.

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We acknowledge V. Johnsen, H. Sandvik, T. Sigurdsen and T. Johnsen for assistance in the field and E. Andersen for performing the blood cell counts. S. Liljedal, G. Rudolfsen and F. Skarstein kindly commented on earlier drafts of the MS. The study was financed through grants from the Norwegian Research Council and the Directorate for Nature Management.

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Correspondence to Sveinn Are Hanssen.

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Hanssen, S.A., Folstad, I. & Erikstad, K.E. Reduced immunocompetence and cost of reproduction in common eiders. Oecologia 136, 457–464 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-003-1282-8

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  • Body mass
  • Immune function
  • Life history
  • Local survival
  • Somateria mollissima