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The innate immune system is essential for survival, yet many immune traits are highly variable between and within individuals. In recent years, attention has shifted to the role of environmental factors in modulating this variation. A key environmental factor is food availability, which plays a major role in shaping life histories, and may affect resource allocation to immune function through its effect on nutritional state. We developed a technique to permanently increase foraging costs in seed-eating birds, and leveraged this technique to study the effects of food availability on the innate immune system over a 3-year period in 230 zebra finches housed in outdoor aviaries. The immune components we studied were haptoglobin, ovotransferrin, nitric oxide, natural antibodies through agglutination, complement-mediated lysis, and killing capacity of Escherichia coli and Candida albicans, covering a broad spectrum of the innate immune system. We explored the effects of food availability in conjunction with other potentially important variables: season, age, sex and manipulated natal brood size. Increased foraging costs affected multiple components of the immune system, albeit in a variable way. Nitric oxide and agglutination levels were lower under harsh foraging conditions, while Escherichia coli killing capacity was increased. Agglutination levels also varied seasonally, but only at low foraging costs. C. albicans killing capacity was lower in winter, and even more so for animals in harsh foraging conditions that were raised in large broods. Effects of food availability on ovotransferrin were also seasonal, and only apparent in males. Haptoglobin levels were independent of foraging costs and season. Males had higher levels of immune function than females for three of the measured immune traits. Innate immune function was independent of age and manipulated natal brood size. Our finding that food availability affects innate immune function suggests that fitness effects of food availability may at least partially be mediated by effects on the immune system. However, food availability effects on innate immunity varied in direction between traits, illustrating the complexity of the immune system and precluding conclusions on the level of disease resistance.
01/10/2017 → 01/02/2023