Logo of procbhomepageaboutsubmitalertseditorial board
Proc Biol Sci. Feb 22, 2003; 270(1513): 347–356.
PMCID: PMC1691255

A comparative study of white blood cell counts and disease risk in carnivores.


In primates, baseline levels of white blood cell (WBC) counts are related to mating promiscuity. It was hypothesized that differences in the primate immune system reflect pathogen risks from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Here, we test for the generality of this result by examining hypotheses involving behavioural, ecological and life-history factors in carnivores. Again, we find a significant correlation in carnivores between mating promiscuity and elevated levels of WBC counts. In addition, we find relationships with measures of sociality, substrate use and life-history parameters. These comparative results across independent taxonomic orders indicate that the evolution of the immune system, as represented by phylogenetic differences in basal levels of blood cell counts, is closely linked to disease risk involved with promiscuous mating and associated variables. We found only limited support for an association between the percentage of meat in the diet and WBC counts, which is consistent with the behavioural and physiological mechanisms that carnivores use to avoid parasite transmission from their prey. We discuss additional comparative questions related to taxonomic differences in disease risk, modes of parasite transmission and implications for conservation biology.

Full Text

The Full Text of this article is available as a PDF (222K).

Selected References

These references are in PubMed. This may not be the complete list of references from this article.
  • Anderson RM, May RM. Population biology of infectious diseases: Part I. Nature. 1979 Aug 2;280(5721):361–367. [PubMed]
  • Arneberg P, Skorping A, Grenfell B, Read AF. Host densities as determinants of abundance in parasite communities. Proc Biol Sci. 1998 Jul 22;265(1403):1283–1289. [PMC free article]
  • Austin CR. Sperm fertility, viability and persistence in the female tract. J Reprod Fertil Suppl. 1975 Apr;(22):75–89. [PubMed]
  • Barratt CL, Bolton AE, Cooke ID. Functional significance of white blood cells in the male and female reproductive tract. Hum Reprod. 1990 Aug;5(6):639–648. [PubMed]
  • Bininda-Emonds OR, Gittleman JL, Purvis A. Building large trees by combining phylogenetic information: a complete phylogeny of the extant Carnivora (Mammalia). Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 1999 May;74(2):143–175. [PubMed]
  • Daszak P, Cunningham AA, Hyatt AD. Emerging infectious diseases of wildlife--threats to biodiversity and human health. Science. 2000 Jan 21;287(5452):443–449. [PubMed]
  • De Leo GA, Dobson AP. Allometry and simple epidemic models for microparasites. Nature. 1996 Feb 22;379(6567):720–722. [PubMed]
  • Demas GE, Chefer V, Talan MI, Nelson RJ. Metabolic costs of mounting an antigen-stimulated immune response in adult and aged C57BL/6J mice. Am J Physiol. 1997 Nov;273(5 Pt 2):R1631–R1637. [PubMed]
  • Frank LG, Glickman SE, Licht P. Fatal sibling aggression, precocial development, and androgens in neonatal spotted hyenas. Science. 1991 May 3;252(5006):702–704. [PubMed]
  • Harvell CD, Kim K, Burkholder JM, Colwell RR, Epstein PR, Grimes DJ, Hofmann EE, Lipp EK, Osterhaus AD, Overstreet RM, et al. Emerging marine diseases--climate links and anthropogenic factors. Science. 1999 Sep 3;285(5433):1505–1510. [PubMed]
  • Harvey PH, Rambaut A. Comparative analyses for adaptive radiations. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2000 Nov 29;355(1403):1599–1605. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Lockhart AB, Thrall PH, Antonovics J. Sexually transmitted diseases in animals: ecological and evolutionary implications. Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 1996 Aug;71(3):415–471. [PubMed]
  • Møller AP. Immune defence, extra-pair paternity, and sexual selection in birds. Proc Biol Sci. 1997 Apr 22;264(1381):561–566. [PMC free article]
  • Moret Y, Schmid-Hempel P. Survival for immunity: the price of immune system activation for bumblebee workers. Science. 2000 Nov 10;290(5494):1166–1168. [PubMed]
  • Nordling D, Andersson M, Zohari S, Gustafsson L. Reproductive effort reduces specific immune response and parasite resistance. Proc Biol Sci. 1998 Jul 22;265(1403):1291–1298. [PMC free article]
  • Nunn Charles L. A comparative study of leukocyte counts and disease risk in primates. Evolution. 2002 Jan;56(1):177–190. [PubMed]
  • Nunn CL, Gittleman JL, Antonovics J. Promiscuity and the primate immune system. Science. 2000 Nov 10;290(5494):1168–1170. [PubMed]
  • O'Brien SJ, Eizirik E, Murphy WJ. Genomics. On choosing mammalian genomes for sequencing. Science. 2001 Jun 22;292(5525):2264–2266. [PubMed]
  • Pandya IJ, Cohen J. The leukocytic reaction of the human uterine cervix to spermatozoa. Fertil Steril. 1985 Mar;43(3):417–421. [PubMed]
  • Phillips DM, Mahler S. Leukocyte emigration and migration in the vagina following mating in the rabbit. Anat Rec. 1977 Sep;189(1):45–59. [PubMed]
  • Price T. Correlated evolution and independent contrasts. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 1997 Apr 29;352(1352):519–529. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Purvis A, Rambaut A. Comparative analysis by independent contrasts (CAIC): an Apple Macintosh application for analysing comparative data. Comput Appl Biosci. 1995 Jun;11(3):247–251. [PubMed]
  • Purvis A, Gittleman JL, Cowlishaw G, Mace GM. Predicting extinction risk in declining species. Proc Biol Sci. 2000 Oct 7;267(1456):1947–1952. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Roelke-Parker ME, Munson L, Packer C, Kock R, Cleaveland S, Carpenter M, O'Brien SJ, Pospischil A, Hofmann-Lehmann R, Lutz H, et al. A canine distemper virus epidemic in Serengeti lions (Panthera leo). Nature. 1996 Feb 1;379(6564):441–445. [PubMed]
  • Rothman KJ. No adjustments are needed for multiple comparisons. Epidemiology. 1990 Jan;1(1):43–46. [PubMed]
  • Semple Stuart, Cowlishaw Guy, Bennett Peter M. Immune system evolution among anthropoid primates: parasites, injuries and predators. Proc Biol Sci. 2002 May 22;269(1495):1031–1037. [PMC free article] [PubMed]
  • Smith G, Dobson AP. Sexually transmitted diseases in animals. Parasitol Today. 1992 May;8(5):159–166. [PubMed]
  • Thrall PH, Antonovics J, Dobson AP. Sexually transmitted diseases in polygynous mating systems: prevalence and impact on reproductive success. Proc Biol Sci. 2000 Aug 7;267(1452):1555–1563. [PMC free article] [PubMed]

Articles from Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences are provided here courtesy of The Royal Society


Related citations in PubMed

See reviews...See all...

Cited by other articles in PMC

See all...


  • Cited in Books
    Cited in Books
    PubMed Central articles cited in books
  • PubMed
    PubMed citations for these articles

Recent Activity

Your browsing activity is empty.

Activity recording is turned off.

Turn recording back on

See more...