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Feather mite abundance increases with uropygial gland size and plumage yellowness in Great Tits Parus major

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Plumicolous feather mites are ectosymbiotic organisms that live on bird feathers. Despite their abundance and prevalence among birds, the ecology of the interaction between these organisms and their hosts is poorly known. As feather mites feed on oil that birds spread from their uropygial gland, it has been hypothesized, but never tested, that the number of feather mites increases with the size of the uropygial gland of their hosts. In this study the number of feather mites is considered with respect to uropygial gland size in a breeding population of Great Tits Parus major in order to test this hypothesis. As predicted, the number of feather mites correlated positively with the uropygial gland size of their hosts, showing for the first time that uropygial gland size can explain the variance in feather mite load among conspecifics. Previous studies relating feather mite load to plumage colour have suggested that feather mites may be parasitic or neutral. To confirm this, the yellowness of breast feathers was also assessed. However, the results ran in the opposite direction to that expected, showing a positive correlation between mite load and plumage yellowness, which suggests that further work is needed to give clear evidence for a specific nature of feather mites. However, Great Tits with higher mite loads had lower hatching and breeding success, which may support the idea that feather mites are parasites, although this effect must be taken with caution because it was only found in males. Age or sex effects were not found on the number of feather mites, and it is proposed that hormonal levels may not be sufficient to explain the variation in feather mite loads. Interestingly, a positive correlation was detected between uropygial gland size and plumage brightness, which could be a novel factor to take into account in studies of plumage colour.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: 2006-10-01

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