Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

    The evolution of optimal functioning and maintenance of the immune system is thought to be driven by the costs arising from the allocation of resources to immune functions rather than to growth and reproduction and by the benefits arising from higher defence if an infection occurs. In young animals there is a high premium for fast growth and competitiveness and a parasite-mediated trade-off is thus predicted between the allocation of resources to growth versus immune function. In a field study on nestling great tits (Parus major), we manipulated simultaneously the level of immune defence by a dietary supplementation of the immunostimulant methionine and ectoparasite (Ceratophyllus gallinae) abundance in the nest and thereby assessed both the costs and benefits of investing in immune defence. Nestlings supplemented with methionine grew slower during the experimental boost of their immune system compared to controls. Thereafter, however, nestlings with a boosted immune system grew at faster rates under parasite pressure compared to unstimulated birds. It experimentally shows the costs and benefits of investment in immunity and suggests that the evolution of optimum host defence is governed by a parasite-mediated allocation trade-off between growth and immune function.