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, Universiteitsplein 1, 2610 Wilrijk, Belgium
  • 2 Museum of Comparative Zoology, Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Cambridge, MA, USA

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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