Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Feverish Song Sparrows

Researchers are studying how western Song Sparrows respond to infections that might cause a fever.
As anyone who has suffered from a cold or flu knows, a high temperature is an unpleasant but important side effect of the body's immune reaction when fighting off pathogens. Laboratory studies, in which the immune responses of animals could be observed in detail, have shown that these responses display significant variations.

Why doesn't every organism defend its body at the maximum possible level of intensity? New immunological theories presume that immune responses are "costly," that is they compete with other energy-consuming processes such as partner selection, territorial behaviour and reproduction. Each individual has limited resources and must, therefore, enter into compromises, so-called trade-offs. This could explain why different species with different living conditions also display variations in their immune responses.
Apparently Song Sparrows do respond with fevers, but only at night, and more vigorously in southern areas. The really cool part of the study is that they found a way to study the birds' responses while the birds were in the wild.
Jim Adelman, a doctoral student at the University of Princeton, and a staff working with Michaela Hau and Martin Wikelski at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell have now succeeded in measuring fever and illness-related behavioural changes in various populations of a North American bird species living in the wild, the song sparrow (Melospiza melodia). For the tests, individual sparrows were caught in South California and in the northern state of Washington. To stimulate the immune response in a standardised way, both groups were administered a small dose of bacterial cell walls which causes fever for a limited period of around one day. A control group was left untreated. Following the administration of the injection, a small transmitter weighing approximately 0.5 grams was attached to the birds' backs and transmitted data on both their temperatures and activities over a 20-hour period.

Interestingly enough, the "injected" sparrows showed barely any increase in temperature during the day. However, during the night when, based on their natural biorhythms, birds reduce their metabolism and their temperatures by three to four degrees, clear differences emerged between the two populations: the Californian sparrows recorded a body temperature of over two degrees Celsius higher than the animals in the untreated control group of this population. As opposed to this, the temperatures of the more northern population increased by at most one degree and only during the first half of the night.
The lower fever temperatures of the northern sparrows is explained by their shorter breeding season. Since they need to devote more resources to breeding to cope with a shorter season, they may have less energy left over for producing a fever in response to infection.