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Keywords:

  • bacteria;
  • birds;
  • feather mites;
  • hatching success;
  • mutualism;
  • uropygial gland

Abstract

Potentially, pathogenic bacteria are one of the main infective agents against which a battery of chemical and physical barriers has evolved in animals. Among these are the secretions by the exocrine uropygial gland in birds. The antimicrobial properties of uropygial secretions may prevent colonization and growth of microorganisms on feathers, skin and eggshells. However, uropygial gland secretions also favour the proliferation of feather mites that feed on secretions and microorganisms living on feathers that would otherwise reach eggshells during incubation if not consumed by feather mites. Therefore, at the interspecific level, uropygial gland size (as an index of volume of uropygial secretion) should be positively related to eggshell bacterial load (i.e. the risk of egg infection), whereas eggshell bacterial loads may be negatively related to abundance of feather mites eating bacteria. Here, we explore these previously untested predictions in a comparative framework using information on eggshell bacterial loads, uropygial gland size, diversity and abundance of feather mites and hatching success of 22 species of birds. The size of the uropygial gland was positively related to eggshell bacterial loads (mesophilic bacteria and Enterobacteriaceae), and bird species with higher diversity and abundance of feather mites harboured lower bacterial density on their eggshells (Enterococcus and Staphylococcus), in accordance with the hypothesis. Importantly, eggshell bacterial loads of mesophilic bacteria, Enterococcus and Enterobacteriaceae were negatively associated with hatching success, allowing us to interpret these interspecific relationships in a functional scenario, where both uropygial glands and mutualistic feather mites independently reduce the negative effects of pathogenic bacteria on avian fitness.