Unravelling the costs of flight for immune defenses in the migratory monarch butterfly

Integrative & Comparative Biology

butterflyMigratory animals undergo extreme physiological changes to prepare for and sustain energetically costly movements; one potential change is reduced investment in immune defenses. However, because some migrants have evolved to minimize the energetic demands of movement (for example, through the temporary atrophy of non-essential organs such as those involved in reproduction), migratory animals could potentially avoid immunosuppression during long-distance journeys. In this study, we used a tethered flight mill to examine immune consequences of experimentally induced powered flight in eastern North American monarch butterflies. These butterflies undergo an annual two-way long-distance migration each year from as far north as Canada to wintering sites in Central Mexico. We quantified immune measures as a function of categorical flight treatment (flown versus control groups) and continuous measures of flight effort (e.g., flight distance, duration, and measures of efficiency). We also examined whether relationships between flight and immune measures depended on reproductive investment by experimentally controlling whether monarchs were reproductive or in state of reproductive diapause (having atrophied reproductive organs) prior to flight. Of the three immune responses we measured, hemocyte concentration (the number of immune cells) was lower in flown monarchs relative to controls but increased with flight distance among flown monarchs; the other two immune measures showed no relationship to monarch flight. We also found that monarchs that were reproductively active were less efficient fliers, as they exerted more power during flight than monarchs in reproductive diapause. However, reproductive status did not modify relationships between flight and immune measures. Results of this study add to a growing body of work suggesting that migratory monarchs-like some other animals that travel vast distances-can complete their journeys with efficient use of resources and minimal costs.

  • Alexa Fritzsche McKay, Vanessa O Ezenwa, Sonia Altizer. 2016.¬†Unravelling the Costs of Flight for Immune Defenses in the Migratory Monarch Butterfly.¬†Integrative & Comparative Biology. (in press.) [online]

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