The prevalence and intensity of parasitic infection often increases in animals when they are reproducing. This may be a consequence of increased rates of parasite transmission due to reproductive effort. Alternatively, endocrine changes associated with reproduction can lead to immunosuppression. Here we provide support for a third potential mechanism: reduced immunocompetence as a consequence of adaptive reallocation of resources in times of increased energetic demand. In captive zebra finches Taeniopygia guttata, reproductive effort was manipulated through brood size. Enhanced effort was found to affect the production of antibodies towards sheep red blood cells. In addition, activity of zebra finches was manipulated independently of parental care. Experimentally increased daily workloads in activity reward schedules also suppressed antibody production. Thus, we show that not just the reproductive state, but the increased activity that accompanies reproduction is associated with immunocompetence. This mechanism may be sufficient to explain the increased parasitism observed in reproducing animals. We suggest that reduced immunocompetence as a consequence of increased reproductive effort may be an important pathway for the life history cost of reproduction.
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