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The relationship between migration and the immune system

Migratory birds make annual trips between their breeding and wintering grounds. The parasite fauna of these two sites may differ markedly, especially in the case of long-distance migrants that breed in Northern Europe, but overwinter in tropical locations. The selective pressure of being exposed to a greater diversity of parasites is expected to favour the evolution of immune traits that enable individuals to respond effectively to a broad array of parasites.

House sparrow
Photo: Shinichi Nakagawa

An important determinant of an individual’s ability to mount an effective immune response is pathogen recognition, in which the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) plays a key role. The number of foreign molecules that can be recognised by different MHC molecules is determined by the number and variety of MHC genes an individual possesses. Therefore, we predict that migratory birds have evolved a larger and more diverse suite of MHC genes than their sedentary counterparts. In this project we are testing this prediction by sequencing the MHC genes of a large number of sedentary birds in Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa and comparing them to migratory species that visit both areas. The results of this study will advance our understanding of the relationship between migration and immune genes.

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Centre for Animal Movement Research
Evolutionary Ecology, Department of Biology
Ecology building S-223 62 Lund Sweden