Immunocompetence and parasite infestation in a melanistic and normally-coloured population of the lacertid lizard, Podarcis siculus

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  • 1 Laboratory of Functional Morphology, Department of Biology, University of Antwerp, Universiteitsplein 1, 2610 Wilrijk, Belgium
  • | 2 Museum of Comparative Zoology, Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA

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Abstract

Melanism is the occurrence of individuals that are darker in skin pigmentation than their conspecifics, which is a common colour polymorphism among vertebrates. Due to the pleotropic effects of the POMC gene that is responsible for melanin-based colouration, dark pigmentation often co-varies with a range of other phenotypic traits. Still, not much is known on the link between melanin-based colouration and immunity in lizards. In this study, we examined and compared the immunocompetence and degree of ectoparasite infestation of Podarcis siculus lizards from a fully melanistic population on an islet in the Tyrrhenian Sea, with conspecifics from a ‘normally’-coloured population on the mainland. Our findings show that both males and females from the melanistic population were less parasitized by ectoparasites and had a greater cellular immune response to a phytohemagglutinin injection than normally-coloured conspecifics. This outcome is in line with the “genetic link hypothesis”, which predicts that melanistic individuals will be more resistant to parasites than non-melanistic individuals due to the pleiotropic POMC gene. In addition, we found correlative evidence for a link between ectoparasite load and PHA immune response, but this was only true for males from the normally-coloured population. Immunological data on additional melanistic and non-melanistic populations of Podarcis siculus in the Mediterranean basin would provide us better insight into patterns of co-variation between immunity and melanism in lizards.

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