Eco-immunology in wild meerkats
As an immunologist turned ecologist or, more concisely, an ecoimmunologist, I am interested in understanding the proximate social and endocrine mechanisms underlying individual variation in immune function, as well as the fitness consequences of this variation. Meerkats are an interesting model for such work, because females are hormonally masculinized and androgens mediate female, but not male, dominance (see research from Drea Lab at Duke University). Importantly, androgens have been linked to immunosuppression in males of many species; yet, we know little about the consequences of androgens for female health. Through my research at the KMP, I have found that 1) dominant meerkats, especially females, are the most heavily parasitized group members, 2) dominant females have the weakest constitutive immune responses, and 3) female immunocompetence is negatively correlated with androgen concentrations. Like in males of typical species, in these ‘masculinized’ females, androgens appear to mediate a trade off between reproduction and health. Moreover, this trade off could be ‘inherited’ by a female’s offspring via differential prenatal exposure to androgens; thus, I am charting the health and survival of offspring derived from dominant dams, subordinate dams, and dominant dams that received an androgen-receptor blocker during gestation.