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An experimental test of the physiological consequences of avian malaria infection.

J Anim Ecol; 86(6): 1483-1496, 2017 Oct.
Article in English | MEDLINE | ID: mdl-28884826
Chronic, low-intensity parasite infections can reduce host fitness through negative impacts on reproduction and survival, even if they produce few overt symptoms. As a result, these parasites can influence the evolution of host morphology, behaviour and physiology. The physiological consequences of chronic infection can provide insight into the processes underlying parasite-driven natural selection. Here, we evaluate the physiological consequences of natural, low-intensity infection in an avian host-parasite system: adult male red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) infected with haemosporidian parasites. Chronic haemosporidian infection has previously been shown to reduce both reproductive success and survival in several avian species. We used antimalarial medications to experimentally reduce haemosporidian parasitaemia (the proportion of blood cells infected with haemosporidian parasites) and measured the effect of treatment on body condition, haematology, immune function, physiological stress and oxidative state. Treatment with an antimalarial medication reduced parasitaemia for the most prevalent haemosporidian parasites from the genus Plasmodium. Treatment also increased haemoglobin and haematocrit, and decreased red blood cell production rates. We detected no effect of treatment on body condition, immune metrics, plasma corticosterone concentrations, total antioxidant capacity or reactive oxygen metabolites. Our results suggest that the damage and replacement of red blood cells during infection could be important costs of chronic haemosporidian infection. Strong links between parasitaemia and the physiological consequences of infection indicate that even for relatively low-intensity infections, measuring parasitaemia rather than only presence/absence could be important when evaluating the role of infection in influencing hosts' behaviour, physiology or fitness.