Altered histology of the thymus and spleen in contaminant-exposed juvenile American alligators



Morphological differences in spleen and thymus are closely related to functional immune differences. Hormonal regulation of the immune system has been demonstrated in reptilian splenic and thymic tissue. Spleens and thymus were obtained from juvenile alligators at two reference sites in Florida, USA: Orange Lake and a National Wildlife Refuge, Lake Woodruff, as well as from a contaminated lake, Lake Apopka. Lake Apopka has been extensively polluted with agricultural pesticides. Tissues were prepared for histological analysis to determine if previously detected endocrine abnormalities associated with contaminant exposure might also be reflected in morphological differences in splenic and thymic structures important for immunological response. Similar tissues were taken from captive-raised juvenile female alligators (3 years old) that were hatched from eggs collected on Lake Woodruff and Lake Apopka. Differences in thymic ratios (medulla/cortex) were found among alligators collected from the two lakes (P = 0.0051). Alligators from Lake Apopka had smaller thymic ratios than animals from either reference lake. Males from Lake Woodruff had significantly smaller lymphocyte sheaths in the spleen than females (P = 0.0009), indicative of a normal sexual dimorphism. Lymphocyte sheath width differed among females obtained from the three lakes, with females from Lake Apopka having the smallest sheath width and those from Orange Lake having the largest. Malpighian body area was largest in alligators from Orange Lake, intermediate in Lake Woodruff, and smallest in Lake Apopka. In contrast to that observed for wild-caught animals, no difference was found in the thymic medulla/cortex ratio of captive-raised female alligators (P = 0.378). Captive-raised female alligators from Lake Apopka and Lake Woodruff displayed lake-associated differences in lymphocyte sheath width as observed in wild animals; Lake Apopka alligators had smaller lymphocyte sheath width compared to Woodruff alligators (P = 0.0396). In contrast to wild-caught animals, area of the Malpighian bodies did not differ by lake in the captive-raised female alligators (P = 0.066). The enlarged thymic cortex suggests a change in T-lymphocyte maturation within the thymus of alligators from a contaminated environment, Lake Apopka. The results point to alterations in the histology of the thymus and spleen. Further studies are required to examine the functional significance of these observations. J. Morphol. 256:349–359, 2003. © 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.