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Immunocompetent birds choose larger breeding colonies

Cite this dataset

Drzewińska-Chańko, Joanna et al. (2021). Immunocompetent birds choose larger breeding colonies [Dataset]. Dryad.


The optimal size of social groups may vary between individuals, depending on their phenotypic traits, such as dominance status, age, or personality. Larger social groups often enhance transmission rates of pathogens and should be avoided by individuals with poor immune defenses. In contrast, more immunocompetent individuals are expected to take advantage of larger group sizes (e.g. better protection, information transfer) with smaller extra costs from pathogen or parasite pressure.

Here, we hypothesized that immunocompetence may be a key determinant of group size choice and tested this hypothesis in a colonial waterbird, the common tern Sterna hirundo. For this purpose, we used a unique experimental framework, where formation of breeding colonies of different sizes was induced under uniform environmental conditions. For this purpose, different-size patches of attractive nesting substrate (artificial floating rafts) were provided at a single site with limited availability of natural nesting habitat.

Colony size was identified as the only significant predictor of both innate (natural antibody mediated complement activation) and adaptive (immunoglobulin concentrations) immunological traits in the common terns, as more immunocompetent birds settled in larger experimental colonies. In contrast, we found no significant associations between colony size and genetic diversity of key pathogen-recognition receptors, toll-like receptors (TLRs) and the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) or genome-wide heterozygosity.

We conclude that settlement decisions may be flexible within individuals and, thus, are likely to be primarily determined by the current immunological status, rather than fixed immunogenetic traits. Our study sheds new light on the complex interface between immunity and sociality in animals.


National Science Centre in Poland, Award: 2016/23/B/NZ8/02374

National Science Centre in Poland, Award: 2016/23/B/NZ8/02374