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Serum immunoglobulin G levels are positively related to reproductive performance in a long-lived seabird, the common tern (Sterna hirundo)


The evolution of longevity requires a low risk of mortality from extrinsic factors, relative to intrinsic factors, so that individuals that differentially invest in physiological self-maintenance and minimize their annual reproductive costs will maximize lifetime fitness through a prolonged reproductive lifespan. The trade-off between reproductive effort and self-maintenance, as measured by immune function, has been well documented in short-lived birds, but is difficult to demonstrate in long-lived birds. To assess self-maintenance in a long-lived seabird, we measured serum protein levels, including immunoglobulin G (IgG = IgY), in 30 breeding pairs of common terns (Sterna hirundo) and their first-hatched (A) chicks. Most parents were of known age from banding as hatchlings; our sample was selected to contrast young breeders (6–9 years) with very old birds (17–23 years). Body-mass of the parents declined by 5% during the chick-rearing period, while serum protein levels were stable. Serum IgG levels were higher in parents of offspring with faster growth rates, while IgG levels were lower in parents whose broods were reduced by starvation. A-chicks in broods of two had higher IgG levels than singleton chicks. Albumin levels were not related to reproductive performance. Thus, despite adequate statistical power, we could find no evidence for a trade-off between reproduction and self-maintenance in common terns, even in old age. The results are consistent with life-history predictions for long-lived vertebrates, in which selection favors sustained self-maintenance across the reproductive lifespan. The positive relationships between IgG levels and reproductive performance indicate that IgG can be used as an index of parental “quality.”

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We thank Suzanne Conlon, Margaret Friar, Tim Meehan, and Jeremy Hatch for help in the field in 1999, many other colleagues and assistants for banding chicks since 1976, and the Town of Marion for permission to work at Bird Island. Laboratory analyses were assisted by P. Scipio, Y. Sanchez, D. Rodriguez, and Y. Tran and supported by NIH-MBRS (GM61347). This research was approved by institutional, state, and federal agencies for compliance with animal welfare and migratory bird regulations.

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Correspondence to Victor Apanius.

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Communicated by Carol Vleck

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Apanius, V., Nisbet, I.C. Serum immunoglobulin G levels are positively related to reproductive performance in a long-lived seabird, the common tern (Sterna hirundo). Oecologia 147, 12–23 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-005-0238-6

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  • Life-history
  • Self-maintenance
  • Cost of reproduction
  • Sibling competition
  • Aging