Reduced immune function predicts disease susceptibility in frogs infected with a deadly fungal pathogen

The relationship between amphibian immune function and disease susceptibility is of primary concern given current worldwide declines linked to the pathogenic fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd).

We experimentally infected lowland leopard frogs (Lithobates yavapaiensis) with Bd to test the hypothesis that infection causes physiological stress and stimulates humoral and cell-mediated immune function in the blood.

We measured body mass, the ratio of circulating neutrophils to lymphocytes (a known indicator of physiological stress) and plasma bacterial killing ability (BKA; a measure of innate immune function). In early exposure (1–15 days post-infection), stress was elevated in Bd-positive vs. Bd-negative frogs, whereas other metrics were similar between the groups.

At later stages (29–55 days post-infection), stress was increased in Bd-positive frogs with signs of chytridiomycosis compared with both Bd-positive frogs without disease signs and uninfected control frogs, which were similar to each other. Infection decreased growth during the same period, demonstrating that sustained resistance to Bd is energetically costly.

Importantly, BKA was lower in Bd-positive frogs with disease than in those without signs of chytridiomycosis. However, neither group differed from Bd-negative control frogs.

The low BKA values in dying frogs compared with infected individuals without disease signs suggests that complement activity might signify different immunogenetic backgrounds or gene-by-environment interactions between the host, Bd and abiotic factors.

We conclude that protein complement activity might be a useful predictor of Bd susceptibility and might help to explain differential disease outcomes in natural amphibian populations.

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