Parasitism and developmental plasticity in Alpine swift nestlings

P Bize*, A Roulin, LF Bersier, D Pfluger, H Richner

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

66 Citations (Scopus)


1. Development plasticity is a common evolutionary and phenotypic response to poor growth condition, in particular in organisms with determinate growth such as most birds and mammals. Because various body structures can contribute differently to overall fitness, natural selection will adjust the degree of plasticity of each structure to its proportionate contribution to fitness at a given life stage.

2. Two non-mutually exclusive mechanisms can account for plasticity in the growth of offspring to compensate for the effect of parasites. First, if parasite infestation levels fluctuate over the nestling period, parasitized young may show reduced growth until peak parasite infestation, and accelerated growth once the conditions improve (the accelerated growth hypothesis). Secondly, if the period of tissue maturation is not fixed in time, hosts may grow slower than parasite-free hosts but for a longer period of time (the delayed maturation hypothesis).

3. To test whether hosts compensate for the effects of parasites on their development, the load of the blood-sucking louse-fly Crataerina melbae Rondani in the nests of Alpine swifts, Apus melba Linnaeus, was increased or decreased experimentally. Parasite prevalence was 100% in both treatments, but intensity (no. of parasites per nestling) was significantly lower for deparasitized nestlings. In both treatments, parasite intensity increased up to halfway through the rearing period (i.e. 30 days of age) and decreased afterwards.

4. In line with the accelerated growth hypothesis, wings of parasitized nestlings grew at a lower rate than those of deparasitized ones before the peak of parasite infestation, but at a greater rate after the peak. Louse-flies had no significant effect on the growth of body mass. In agreement with the delayed-maturation hypothesis, wings of parasitized nestlings grew for 3 additional days and were of similar size at fledging as in deparasitized birds.

5. In summary, the present study shows in a wild bird population that nestling hosts can compensate for the effect of parasitism on their phenotype. It emphasizes the need to take the dynamics of parasite populations into account in studies of host-parasite relationships, and to investigate the effect of parasites on host development over the entire growing period rather than only at fledging, as employed traditionally.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)633-639
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Animal Ecology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2003


  • Apus melba
  • compensatory growth
  • Crataerina melbae
  • delayed maturation
  • host-parasite interaction
  • SIZE


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