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Received 4 July 2002 Accepted 25 October 2002

Summary: Received 4 July 2002
Accepted 25 October 2002
Published online 9 January 2003
A comparative study of white blood cell counts
and disease risk in carnivores
Charles L. Nunn*
, John L. Gittleman and Janis Antonovics
Department of Biology, Gilmer Hall, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4328, USA
In primates, baseline levels of white blood cell (WBC) counts are related to mating promiscuity. It was
hypothesized that differences in the primate immune system reflect pathogen risks from sexually trans-
mitted diseases (STDs). Here, we test for the generality of this result by examining hypotheses involving
behavioural, ecological and life-history factors in carnivores. Again, we find a significant correlation in
carnivores between mating promiscuity and elevated levels of WBC counts. In addition, we find relation-
ships with measures of sociality, substrate use and life-history parameters. These comparative results across
independent taxonomic orders indicate that the evolution of the immune system, as represented by phylo-
genetic differences in basal levels of blood cell counts, is closely linked to disease risk involved with
promiscuous mating and associated variables. We found only limited support for an association between
the percentage of meat in the diet and WBC counts, which is consistent with the behavioural and physio-
logical mechanisms that carnivores use to avoid parasite transmission from their prey. We discuss
additional comparative questions related to taxonomic differences in disease risk, modes of parasite trans-


Source: Antonovics, Janis - Department of Biology, University of Virginia


Collections: Biology and Medicine