Female-biased mortality in experimentally parasitized Alpine Swift Apus melba nestlings


†Author to whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: Pierre.Bize@unil.ch


  • 1Sex-biased mortality in adult vertebrates is often attributed to lower immunocompetence and higher parasite susceptibility of males. Although sex-specific mortality has also been reported during growth, the importance of sex-specific immunocompetence and parasite susceptibility in explaining male-biased mortality remains ambiguous in growing individuals because of potentially confounding sources of mortality such as sexual dimorphism.
  • 2Here, we investigated sex-specific susceptibility to the blood-sucking louse fly Crataerina melbae and sex differences in cell-mediated immunity in a bird species that is sexually monomorphic both in size and plumage coloration at the nestling stage, the Alpine Swift, Apus melba.
  • 3For this purpose, we manipulated ectoparasite loads by adding or removing flies to randomly chosen nests in two years, and injected nestlings with mitogenic phytohaemagglutinin (PHA) in another year.
  • 4There were no significant differences between male and female offspring in immune response towards PHA, parasite load, and parasite-induced decrease in growth rate. Secondary sex ratios were however biased toward males in parasitized broods, and this was explained by a greater mortality of females in parasitized than deparasitized broods.
  • 5Our findings are in contrast to the widely accepted hypothesis that males suffer a greater cost of parasitism. We discuss alternative hypotheses accounting for female-specific mortality.