Parasitism, developmental plasticity and bilateral asymmetry of wing feathers in alpine swift, Apus melba, nestlings

P Bize*, A Roulin, H Richner

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)


The hypothesis that developmental instability is a cost of developmental plasticity is explored using the alpine swift (Apus melba) as a model organism. In a previous study, experimentally parasitized nestlings showed a reduced wing growth rate in the first half of the rearing period when parasites were abundant (i.e. peak infestation) and an accelerated growth rate (i.e. compensatory growth) in the second half when parasites decreased in number. This suggests that alpine swifts are able to adjust growth rate in relation to variation in parasite loads. Because developmental plasticity may entail fitness costs, the energy required to sustain compensatory growth may be invested at the expense of developmental stability, potentially resulting in larger deviations from symmetry in paired, bilateral traits (i.e. fluctuating asymmetry, FA). This hypothesis predicts higher FA in parasitized than deparasitized nestlings because of compensatory growth, and hence individuals sustaining the highest level of compensatory growth rate should exhibit the highest FA levels. Another non-mutually exclusive hypothesis argues that parasites directly cause FA by diverting energy required by host for maintenance and growth, and predicts that individuals suffering the most from parasitism during peak infestation should exhibit the highest FA levels. The present study shows that wing feathers of experimentally parasitized nestlings were more asymmetrical than those of experimentally deparasitized ones 50 days after hatching. Furthermore, in parasitized individuals FA was negatively correlated with wing growth rate during the period of peak infestation but not during the period of compensatory growth. These findings suggest that developmental homeostasis is more sensitive to parasites than to compensatory growth.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)317-323
Number of pages7
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2004




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