How coccidian parasites affect health and appearance of greenfinches


Peeter Hõrak, Institute of Zoology and Hydrobiology, Tartu University, Vanemuise 46, 51014 Tartu, Estonia. Tel. + (3727) 375 075; Fax:. + (3727) 375 830; E-mail:


  • 1The aim of this study was to examine the mechanisms by which parasites can affect the expression of ornamental traits.
  • 2Levels of an intestinal coccidian parasite, Isospora lacazei, were manipulated in captive male greenfinches (Carduelis chloris) by suppressing the natural infections with a coccidiostatic sulphonamide drug. Subsequently, half the birds were experimentally infected, while another half continued receiving medication.
  • 3Over the course of the experiment the effect of our treatments upon 14 mainly haemato-serological condition indices was recorded. Additionally, changes in colour and carotenoid content of yellow tail and breast feathers, which serve as sexually dimorphic ornamental traits, were measured.
  • 4Eighty-nine per cent of birds hosted chronic isosporan infection before the experiment, yet experimental inoculation with mixed parasite strains resulted in drastic but transient decreases in serum carotenoid, vitamin E, triglyceride and albumin concentrations, and reduced body mass, indicating serious pathology and probable nutrient malabsorption due to damaged intestinal epithelium.
  • 5Laboratory-grown tail feathers of infected birds contained 52% less carotenoids and also had smaller values of chroma and hue than those of medicated birds.
  • 6These results suggest that coccidian infection reduced the expression of plumage coloration by creating a deficiency of carotenoids available for deposition in ornamental feathers.