How coccidian parasites affect health and appearance of greenfinches

Peeter Hõrak, Lauri Saks, Ulvi Karu, Indrek Ots, Peter F. Surai, Kevin J. McGraw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

111 Scopus citations


1. The aim of this study was to examine the mechanisms by which parasites can affect the expression of ornamental traits. 2. Levels of an intestinal coccidian parasite, Isospora lacazei, were manipulated in captive male greenfinches (Carduelis chloris) by suppressing the natural infections with a coccidiostatic sulphonamide drug. Subsequently, half the birds were experimentally infected, while another half continued receiving medication. 3. Over the course of the experiment the effect of our treatments upon 14 mainly haemato-serological condition indices was recorded. Additionally, changes in colour and carotenoid content of yellow tail and breast feathers, which serve as sexually dimorphic ornamental traits, were measured. 4. Eighty-nine per cent of birds hosted chronic isosporan infection before the experiment, yet experimental inoculation with mixed parasite strains resulted in drastic but transient decreases in serum carotenoid, vitamin E, triglyceride and albumin concentrations, and reduced body mass, indicating serious pathology and probable nutrient malabsorption due to damaged intestinal epithelium. 5. Laboratory-grown tail feathers of infected birds contained 52% less carotenoids and also had smaller values of chroma and hue than those of medicated birds. 6. These results suggest that coccidian infection reduced the expression of plumage coloration by creating a deficiency of carotenoids available for deposition in ornamental feathers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)935-947
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Animal Ecology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2004
Externally publishedYes


  • Carotenoids
  • Coccidia
  • Experimental infection
  • Plumage colour
  • Vitamin E

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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