Immunoecology of the Great Snipe (Gallinago media) : Mate Choice, MHC Variation, and Humoral Immunocompetence in a Lekking Bird

Sammanfattning: At the centre of the vertebrate immune system is a group of proteins called MHC (major histocompatibility complex) molecules. These function in self – non self recognition and activation of the immune defence against intruding parasites and pathogens. In this thesis I have investigated individual variation in MHC class II genes and antibody producing ability in relation to ecology and behaviour in the great snipe (Gallinago media), a lekking bird, breeding in northern Europe. There was much variation in the MHC genes of the great snipe and the sequence data show that balancing selection has been acting on these genes. I found genetic differentiation in the MHC between two separate geographic regions of the great snipe distribution. Furthermore, this structure was more pronounced than that previously found in neutral genetic markers, suggesting that different selection pressures (possibly resulting from variation in parasitic fauna) are acting in these different regions. The birds produced specific antibodies following injection with two novel antigens. Males that were chosen as mates, had higher antibody titers than their neighbouring males, suggesting that this ability may be important in female mate choice. Such choice could give the offspring an enhanced immune system or could favour females directly by avoidance of sexually transmitted diseases. Females choosing to mate with a male having a different set of MHC genes than their own could give the offspring immune system the ability to react to a wide range of parasites. No such mate choice could, however, be found in the great snipe. Instead, females preferred males with certain MHC alleles, irrespective of their own MHC type. If those alleles confer resistance to parasites currently prevailing in the population, such resistance would be inherited by the offspring, thereby enhancing their fitness.