Fairbrother, A., J. Smits, and K. Grasman. 2004. Avian immunotoxicology. J. Toxicol & Environ. Health. 7(B):105-137. WED-03-048
Methods for studying the avian immune system have matured during the past two decades, with laboratory studies predominating in earlier years and field studies being conducted only in the past decade. One application has been to determine the potential for environmental contaminants to produce immune suppression, while another research direction is looking at the evolutionary significance of a robust immune system, and the relationship between immune competence and fitness parameters. Laboratory studies of immunosuppression following exposure of birds to environmental contaminants have adapted conventional mammalian methods to the avian immune system, and both lines of research have developed field-deployable measures of immune function. This review describes the avian immune system with emphasis on how it differs from the better known mammalian system, reviews the literature on contaminant-induced immunosuppression, and discusses the work on evolutionary biology to avian immunocompetence. Evidence indicates that the field of avian immunology is technically robust, even for nontraditional species such as passerines, seabirds, raptors, and other free-ranging species. It is now possible to screen chemicals for immunotoxicological properties following the same tiered approach that has been established for mammals. Despite the increased capacity and interest in avian field studies, there has not yet been a reported study of measured immune suppression associated with an avian epizootic. It is more likely that the immune suppression in adult birds resulting from low-level chronic stress (e.g., crowding onto poor quality habitat, food reductions, or climate stress) and (or) environmental contaminants causes slow but consistent morbidity and mortality associated with multiple pathogens, rather than an acute epizootic with a single pathogen. Increased fitness costs associated with such stress may significantly alter genetic diversity and species survival over time.