Maternally derived androgens have been shown to influence offspring phenotype in various ways. In birds, the benefits of prenatal androgen exposure, such as increased competitiveness and accelerated growth in nestlings, have been suggested to be balanced by costs, such as reduced immune function. In this study, we used an integrative approach to examine the influence of yolk androgens on the development of immune function in jackdaw (Corvus monedula) nestlings. Specifically, we tested whether the effects of yolk androgens on offspring immunity may extend over the first few days of life and be detectable even after several weeks. We manipulated yolk androgen concentrations in jackdaw eggs and estimated immune responsiveness by challenging the young with different pathogens at different stages of the nestling period. Six-day-old chicks hatched from eggs with elevated yolk androgen levels had lower pre-challenge antibody titres against lipopolysaccharide (LPS) than control chicks. However, antibody titres against LPS did not differ between treatment groups eight days after a challenge with LPS. During the late nestling phase, both humoral (towards diphtheria/tetanus antigens) and cell-mediated (towards phytohaemagglutinin) immune responsiveness were lower in chicks from yolk androgen-treated eggs compared with control chicks. Our experimental study on jackdaw chicks shows that elevated yolk androgen levels result in a general immunosuppression in offspring; this conclusion was based on results for several immunological tests of both humoral and cell-mediated immunity conducted at 1–2 and 3–4 weeks of age.
We thank Martin Granbom, Kent Andersson and Jen Grindstaff for help with fieldwork. This study was supported by grants from the Swedish Research Council (VR) to M.I.S. and D.H., the Swedish Research Council for the Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning (Formas) and the Carl Trygger Foundation to D.H. The experiment was approved by the Malmö/Lund ethical committee for animal research.