The effect of exogenous corticosterone on West Nile virus infection in Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis)

The relationship between stress and disease is thought to be unambiguous: chronic stress induces immunosuppression, which likely increases the risk of infection. However, this link has not been firmly established in wild animals, particularly whether stress hormones affect host responses to zoonotic pathogens, which can be transmitted to domesticated animal, wildlife and human populations.

Due to the dynamic effects of stress hormones on immune functions, stress hormones may make hosts better or poorer amplifying hosts for a pathogen contingent on context and the host species evaluated. Using an important zoonotic pathogen, West Nile virus (WNV) and a competent host, the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), we tested the effects of exogenous corticosterone on response to WNV infection.

Corticosterone was administered at levels that individuals enduring chronic stressors (i.e ., long-term inclement weather, food shortage, anthropogenic pollution) might experience in the wild. Corticosterone greatly impacted mortality: half of the corticosterone-implanted cardinals died between five - 11 days post-inoculation whereas only one of nine sham-implanted (control) birds died.

No differences were found in viral titer between corticosterone- and sham-implanted birds. However, cardinals that survived infections had significantly higher average body temperatures during peak infection than individuals that died.

In sum, this study indicates that elevated corticosterone could affect the survival of WNV-infected wild birds, suggesting that populations may be disproportionately at-risk to disease in stressful environments.

Published on: 2012-04-21

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