Although evidence is accumulating that mothers can transfer antibodies to their offspring, little is known about the consequences of such a transfer to the offspring immune system. Because maternal antibodies are effective only during a short period of time after their transfer to offspring, one hypothesis is that maternal antibodies provides a transitory antigen-specific protection to offspring, thus lessening the need for offspring to mount their own humoral immune response towards these specific antigens. In birds, this scenario predicts that offspring immune response towards a specific antigen is inhibited to a larger extent in hatchlings than in older nestlings. We tested this hypothesis in tawny owls Strix aluco by cross-fostering clutches between nests and then challenging siblings with a vaccine either two times (at 4- and 11-d-old) or only one time at 11-d-old to compare the strength of the humoral response between nestlings born from mothers with naturally high and low levels of antibodies against this vaccine. Because maternal antibodies are expected to be effective only during a short period of time after hatching, we predict that maternal antibodies should inhibit the immune response of nestlings vaccinated from the fourth day after hatching more than in nestlings vaccinated only at a later age. As expected, the inhibitory effect of maternal antibodies was stronger in nestlings vaccinated soon after hatching than in siblings injected at a later age. Therefore, in wild avian populations pre-hatching maternal effects may confer offspring with a transitory immune protection in the first days following hatching.
- KITTIWAKE RISSA-TRIDACTYLA