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Keywords:

  • population bottleneck;
  • immunocompetence;
  • phytohaemagglutinin skin test;
  • Petroica australis;
  • New Zealand

Abstract

Inbreeding resulting from severe population bottlenecks may impair an individual's immune system and render it more susceptible to disease. Although a reduced immune response could threaten the survival of highly endangered species, few studies have assessed the effect of population bottlenecks on immunocompetence. We compared the counts of leucocytes and external, blood and gastrointestinal parasite loads in two populations of the endemic New Zealand robin Petroica australis to assess the immunocompetence of birds in a severely bottlenecked population relative to its more genetically diverse source population. Despite similar parasite loads in both populations, robins in the severely bottlenecked population showed lower counts of both total leucocyte and total lymphocyte numbers. When the immune system was experimentally challenged using the phytohaemagglutinin skin test, robins in the severely bottlenecked population exhibited a significantly lower immune response than the source population, suggesting that birds passing through a severe bottleneck have a compromised immunocompetence. Our results confirm that severe bottlenecks reduce the immune response of birds and highlight the need to avoid severe bottlenecks in the recovery programmes of endangered species.