The thymus in vertebrates and the bursa of Fabricius in birds regress before reproduction, while the immunological information of these organs is maintained as cell memory. Regression at a certain age presupposes that individuals have achieved exposure to a large fraction of parasites in the environment. Here we present a new scenario for regression of immune defence organs, based on optimality reasoning. This scenario links early involution of immune defence organs with (1) effects of exposure to parasites on adaptive immune responses to these parasites, (2) exposure to local parasite communities during natal dispersal and migration as a means of “vaccination” against local parasites, and (3) the function of visits to future breeding sites by juveniles as a means of exposure to local parasites. This scenario provides explanations for why natal dispersal is longer than breeding dispersal, for sex differences in dispersal, and for why the bursa of Fabricius regresses relatively early in life among bird species with delayed start of reproduction.
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