© Marcel Burkhardt
Hasselquist, D., Å. Lindström, S. Jenni-Eiermann, A. Koolhaas, & T. Piersma (2007)
Long flights do not influence immune responses of a long-distance migrant bird: a wind-tunnel experiment.
J. Exp. Biol. 210: 1123–1131
Heavy physical work can result in physiological stress and suppressed immune function. Accordingly, long-distance migrant birds that fly for thousands of km within days can be expected to show immunosuppression, and hence be more vulnerable to infections en route. The red knot Calidris canutus Linnaeus is a long-distance migrant shorebird. We flew red knots the equivalent of 1500·km over 6 days in a wind tunnel. The humoral and cell-mediated immune responses of the flyers were compared to those of non-flying controls. Humoral immunity was measured as antibody production against injected diphtheria and tetanus antigens, and cell-mediated response as phytohemagglutinin-induced wing-web swelling. Blood corticosterone levels, which may modulate immune function, were measured in parallel. The long flights had no detectable effects on humoral or cell-mediated immune responses, or on corticosterone levels. Thus, flight performance per se may not be particularly stressful or immunosuppressive in red knots. Some birds assigned as flyers refused to fly for extended periods. Before flights started, these non-flyers had significantly lower antibody responses against tetanus than the birds that carried out the full flight program. This suggests that only birds in good physical condition may be willing to take on heavy exercise. We conclude that these long-distance migrants appear well adapted to the work load induced by long flights, enabling them to cope with long flight distances without increased stress levels and suppression of immunity. Whether this also applies in the wild, where the migrating birds may face adverse weather and food conditions, remains to be investigated.
Keywords: stress-induced immuno suppression, red knot, corticosterone, immunocompetence.