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Gen Comp Endocrinol. 2005 Jan 15;140(2):126-35. Epub 2004 Dec 2.

Corticosterone suppresses cutaneous immune function in temperate but not tropical House Sparrows, Passer domesticus.

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Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544, USA.


Levels of corticosterone (CORT), the primary avian stress hormone, tend to vary over space and time in passerines, but why this is so remains unclear. One reason may be differential need for immune defense. Typically, sustained high levels of CORT suppress immune activity in vertebrates. Thus, animals living where parasite threats are high might maintain low levels of CORT and mount weak CORT stress responses to ensure that their immune defenses are in a high state of readiness at all times. Here, we addressed this hypothesis by comparing CORT levels in two populations of House Sparrows (Passer domesticus), one from the tropics (Colon, Panama) where parasite threats are high and one from the North-temperate zone (New Jersey, USA) where they are lower. Indeed, we found that House Sparrows from Panama had lower baseline and stress-induced CORT levels than House Sparrows from New Jersey. To more directly test our hypothesis, we artificially elevated CORT (via implant) in both populations of birds, expecting that cutaneous immune activity (induced by phytohemagglutinin (PHA)) would be suppressed as it is in most vertebrates studied to date. Surprisingly, we found that CORT implants did not affect immune function in Panamanian sparrows, while immune function in (non-breeding) New Jersey sparrows was suppressed. This suggests that Panamanian House Sparrows may be immunologically insensitive to CORT, in addition to maintaining low baseline and stress-induced levels of this hormone. We propose that other animals living where disease threats are high may use CORT in a similar way.

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