Relationships between dietary carotenoids, body tissue carotenoids, parasite burden, and health state in wild mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) ducklings

Michael W. Butler, Kevin McGraw

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

24 Scopus citations


While rodents and other mammals have traditionally served as models for studying carotenoid physiology, many wild animals from a variety of other taxa utilize carotenoids for self-maintenance and reproduction and accumulate far greater concentrations than those found in mammals. Though we have basic understandings of the control and value of carotenoids in some wild animal systems, many gaps remain. For example, parasites and pathogens impose severe survival constraints on free-ranging organisms, but little is known of how carotenoids work in concert with the immune system to combat natural infectious challenges. Furthermore, due to the high mortality rate from which many young animals suffer, health and carotenoid status during the early stages of development may be critical to survival. The relative importance of dietary versus physiological mechanisms for carotenoid uptake has also been understudied in the wild. To begin to shed light on these issues, we studied relationships between dietary and tissue carotenoids, hematological immune parameters, and endoparasitism of wild mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) ducklings at a variety of ages. Lutein, zeaxanthin, β-cryptoxanthin, β-carotene, and canthaxanthin were the most common carotenoids in liver, plasma, and gut contents. We found that, early in development (when food intake is limited), carotenoids were comparatively concentrated in internal tissue (e.g., liver), presumably a carry-over from maternal contributions in yolk, but as ducklings approached independence (and increasingly fed on their own) concentrations were greatest in gut contents. Canthaxanthin concentrations were lower in the plasma and liver of older individuals compared to younger ducklings, even though gut canthaxanthin concentration did not change with age. Additionally, β-carotene was nearly absent from circulation, despite moderate levels within the gut, suggesting a high rate of conversion to retinol. Using principal components analysis, we revealed a correlation between an increased ability to assimilate dietary carotenoids and lower levels of chronic stress (as assessed by lower heterophil-to-lymphocyte ratios) and a correlation between a reduced carotenoid status and increased investment in the immune system (as assessed by higher total leukocyte count). We also found that individuals without parasites had an overall reduced carotenoid status. Thus, we demonstrate age-specific differences in carotenoid allocation in growing animals from a precocial bird species and provide correlational evidence that parasitism and health in wild animals are related to carotenoid status and assimilation ability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)154-160
Number of pages7
JournalArchives of Biochemistry and Biophysics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 1 2010


  • Carotenoid
  • Development
  • Duck
  • Food intake
  • Leukocyte
  • Parasites

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biophysics
  • Biochemistry
  • Molecular Biology


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