Costs of immunity: immune responsiveness reduces survival in a vertebrate

Proc Biol Sci. 2004 May 7;271(1542):925-30. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2004.2678.


Immune defences are undoubtedly of great benefit to the host, reducing the impact of infectious organisms. However, mounting immune responses also entails costs, which may be measured by inducing immune responses against artificial infections. We injected common eider (Somateria mollissima) females with three different non-pathogenic antigens, sheep red blood cells (SRBC), diphtheria toxoid and tetanus toxoid, early in their incubation period. In the group of females that mounted a humoral immune response against SRBC, the return rate was only 27%, whereas the group of females that did not mount a response against SRBC had a return rate of 72%. Moreover, responding against diphtheria toxoid when also responding against SRBC led to a further reduction in return rate. These results are repeatable, as the same effect occurred independently in two study years. The severely reduced return rate of females producing antibodies against SRBC and diphtheria toxoid implies that these birds experienced considerably impaired long-term survival. This study thus documents severe costs of mounting humoral immune responses in a vertebrate. Such costs may explain why many organisms suppress immunity when under stress or when malnourished, and why infections may sometimes be tolerated without eliciting immune responses.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antibody Formation / immunology
  • Antibody Formation / physiology*
  • Birds / immunology*
  • Birds / physiology
  • Body Constitution
  • Diphtheria Toxin / immunology
  • Erythrocytes / immunology
  • Female
  • Immune Tolerance / physiology*
  • Immunization*
  • Norway
  • Sheep
  • Tetanus Toxin / immunology


  • Diphtheria Toxin
  • Tetanus Toxin