Innate immunity and environmental correlates of Haemoproteus prevalence and intensity in an opportunistic breeder

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While parasite infection can have substantial fitness consequences in organisms, the predictors of parasite prevalence and intensity are often complex and vary depending on the host species. Here, we examined correlates of Haemoproteus (a common malaria parasite) prevalence and intensity in an opportunistically breeding songbird, the red crossbill (Loxia curvirostra). Specifically, we quantified Haemoproteus prevalence and intensity in crossbills caught in the Grand Teton National Park from 2010 to 2013. We found that parasite prevalence varies seasonally and across years, with the highest number of infected individuals occurring in the summer, although there was variation across summers sampled, and that prevalence was positively related to annual mean cone crop sizes (a measure of crossbill food abundance) and daily ambient temperature (a correlate of vector abundance). Parasite intensity was significantly and positively related to one measure of innate immunity, leucocyte counts per blood volume. Finally, neither crossbill age, ecomorph, nor sex had significant effects on parasite infection intensity; however, parasite prevalence did significantly vary among ecomorph and age classes. These results support the interpretation that a combination of physiological (specifically immune activity) and environmental factors affects parasite prevalence and infection intensity in this opportunistically breeding avian species.

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