Background: Maternal antibodies are believed to play an integral role in protecting immunologically immature wild-passerines from environmental antigens. This study comprehensively examines the early development of the adaptive immune system in an altricial-developing wild passerine species, the house sparrow (Passer domestics), by characterizing the half-life of maternal antibodies in nestling plasma, the onset of de novo synthesis of endogenous antibodies by nestlings, and the timing of immunological independence, where nestlings rely entirely on their own antibodies for immunologic protection.
Methodology/principal findings: In an aviary study we vaccinated females against a novel antigen that these birds would not otherwise encounter in their natural environment, and measured both antigen-specific and total antibody concentration in the plasma of females, yolks, and nestlings. We traced the transfer of maternal antibodies from females to nestlings through the yolk and measured catabolisation of maternal antigen-specific antibodies in nestlings during early development. By utilizing measurements of non-specific and specific antibody levels in nestling plasma we were able to calculate the half-life of maternal antibodies in nestling plasma and the time point at which nestling were capable of synthesizing antibodies themselves. Based on the short half-life of maternal antibodies, the rapid production of endogenous antibodies by nestlings and the relatively low transfer of maternal antibodies to nestlings, our findings suggest that altricial-developing sparrows achieve immunologic independence much earlier than precocial birds.
Conclusions/significance: To our knowledge, this is the first in depth analyses performed on the adaptive immune system of a wild-passerine species. Our results suggest that maternal antibodies may not confer the immunologic protection or immune priming previously proposed in other passerine studies. Further research needs to be conducted on other altricial passerines to determine if the results of our study are a species-specific phenomenon or if they apply to all altricial-developing birds.