• body condition;
  • histology;
  • immune defence;
  • red deer;
  • sex


  • 1
    In studies of birds and their pathogens, spleen size has frequently been used to make inferences about immune system strength. However, the use of spleen size in mammals is more complicated because, in addition to having an immune function, the mammalian spleen is also a reservoir for red blood cells.
  • 2
    To assess the reliability of mammalian spleen mass as an indicator of immune activity, we quantified the white and red pulp mass by histology of spleens from shot red deer Cervus elaphus. We then analysed the relationships among spleen mass, the amounts of white and red pulp, and the deer's body condition relative to faecal counts of the nematode parasite Elaphostrongylus cervi.
  • 3
    White and red pulp mass were positively correlated so that an increase in spleen mass was a positive function of both components of the spleen. In male deer, which had significantly lower body condition and higher parasite loads than females, parasite counts were negatively correlated with spleen mass, white pulp mass, and red pulp mass.
  • 4
    Our findings suggest that (i) spleen mass in shot red deer is a reliable measure of white and red pulp content; and (ii) when looking at the red deer life history, which is greatly influenced by sex of the deer, splenic mass and white pulp mass could be used as reflections of immune system strength.
  • 5
    Future studies of mammalian spleens can contribute to the understanding of evolved strategies of immune response investment in mammals. However, determination of the white and red pulp spleen components using various sampling methods must be made prior to their application.