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Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2008 Jan 27;363(1490):321-39.

Seasonal changes in vertebrate immune activity: mediation by physiological trade-offs.

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Departments of Psychology and Neuroscience, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH 43210, USA.


Animals living in temporally dynamic environments experience variation in resource availability, climate and threat of infection over the course of the year. Thus, to survive and reproduce successfully, these organisms must allocate resources among competing physiological systems in such a way as to maximize fitness in changing environments. Here, we review evidence supporting the hypothesis that physiological trade-offs, particularly those between the reproductive and immune systems, mediate part of the seasonal changes detected in the immune defences of many vertebrates. Abundant recent work has detected significant energetic and nutritional costs of immune defence. Sometimes these physiological costs are sufficiently large to affect fitness (e.g. reproductive output, growth or survival), indicating that selection for appropriate allocation strategies probably occurred in the past. Because hormones often orchestrate allocations among physiological systems, the endocrine mediators of seasonal changes in immune activity are discussed. Many hormones, including melatonin, glucocorticoids and androgens have extensive and consistent effects on the immune system, and they change in systematic fashions over the year. Finally, a modified framework within which to conduct future studies in ecological immunology is proposed, viz. a heightened appreciation of the complex but intelligible nature of the vertebrate immune system. Although other factors besides trade-offs undoubtedly influence seasonal variation in immune defence in animals, a growing literature supports a role for physiological trade-offs and the fitness consequences they sometimes produce.

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