Immune-system activation depletes retinal carotenoids in house finches (Carpodacus mexicanus)

Matthew B. Toomey, Michael W. Butler, Kevin McGraw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


The costs of developing, maintaining, and activating the immune system have been cited as an important force shaping lifehistory evolution in animals. Immunological defenses require energy, nutrients and time that might otherwise be devoted to other life-history traits like sexual displays or reproduction. Carotenoid pigments in animals provide a unique opportunity to track the costs of immune activation, because they are diet-derived, modulate the immune system, and are used to develop colorful signals of quality. Carotenoids also accumulate in the retinas of birds, where they tune spectral sensitivity and provide photoprotection. If carotenoid accumulation in the retina follows the patterns of other tissues, then immune activation may deplete retinal carotenoid levels and impact visual health and function. To test this hypothesis, we challenged molting wild-caught captive house finches (Carpodacus mexicanus) with weekly injections of lipopolysaccharide (LPS) and phytohaemagglutinin (PHA) over the course of 8weeks. Immunostimulated adult males and females produced significant antibody responses and molted more slowly than uninjected control birds. After 8weeks, immune-challenged birds had significantly lower levels of specific retinal carotenoid types (galloxanthin and zeaxanthin), but there were no significant differences in the plasma, liver or feather carotenoid levels between the treatment groups. These results indicate that immune-system activation can specifically deplete retinal carotenoids, which may compromise visual health and performance and represent an additional somatic and behavioral cost of immunity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1709-1716
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number10
StatePublished - May 15 2010


  • Lipopolysaccharide
  • Phytohaemagglutinin
  • Trade-off
  • Vision

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Physiology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Insect Science


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