House finch responses to Mycoplasma gallisepticum infection do not vary with experimentally increased aggression


Aggression can alter infectious disease dynamics through two, non-exclusive mechanisms: 1) increasing direct contact among hosts and 2) altering hosts' physiological response to pathogens. Here we examined the latter mechanism in a social songbird by manipulating intraspecific aggression in the absence of direct physical contact. We asked whether the extent of aggression an individual experiences alters glucocorticoid levels, androgen levels, and individual responses to infection in an ecologically relevant disease model: house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) infected with Mycoplasma gallisepticum (MG). Wild-caught male finches were housed in one of three settings, designed to produce increasing levels of aggression: 1) alone, with no neighbor ("no neighbor"), 2) next to a sham-implanted stimulus male ("sham neighbor"), or 3) next to a testosterone-implanted stimulus male ("testosterone neighbor"). Following one week of social treatment, focal males were experimentally infected with MG, which causes severe conjunctivitis and induces sickness behaviors such as lethargy and anorexia. While social treatment increased aggression as predicted, there were no differences among groups in baseline corticosterone levels, total circulating androgens, or responses to infection. Across all focal individuals regardless of social treatment, pre-infection baseline corticosterone levels were negatively associated with the severity of conjunctivitis and sickness behaviors, suggesting that corticosterone may dampen inflammatory responses in this host-pathogen system. However, because corticosterone levels differed based upon population of origin, caution must be taken in interpreting this result. Taken together, these results suggest that in captivity, although aggression does not alter individual responses to MG, corticosterone may play a role in this disease.

Publication Title

Journal of Experimental Zoology Part A: Ecological Genetics and Physiology