Do migratory birds catch more parasites? This is explored in the Oikos Early View paper “Flying with diverse passengers: greater richness of parasitic nematodes in migratory birds” by Janet Koprivnikar and tommy L.F. Leung. Below is their short summary of the study:
Many different animals undergo annual migrations and some of them cover enormous distances with their journey. This undertaking can be extremely strenuous and physiologically demanding. Aside from the demands of the journey itself, most animals don’t travel alone – they carry with them an entire community of different parasites throughout their body. Migratory birds undergo annual migratory flights across the globe and birds are well known to be a haven for
pathogens. Most birds are infected with dozens of different species of parasite, many of them worms of all shapes and sizes. While most studies looking at bird parasites in relation to their ecology or migratory habits have focused on blood-dwelling types such as avian malaria, few have studied their worms despite the relative abundance of these parasites in their hosts. Of those different types of worms, the most harmful are the nematodes (roundworms). Some nematodes can cause serious diseases in birds so we decided to compare the diversity of parasitic roundworms in migratory birds versus that of non-migratory species.
In particular, we focused our attention on three orders of birds; water birds (Anseriformes), perching birds (Passeriformes), and birds of prey (Accipitriformes). We found that for any of those given orders, the migratory species tended to have a wider range of roundworms than non-migratory species. Furthermore, we also found that bird species which have proportionally larger spleens also happen to have a greater variety of roundworms infecting them.
So why do migratory species have more diverse nematode communities than their non-migratory relatives? We don’t know that at this point. It is possible that migratory birds pick up many different species of parasites during their journey whereas non-migratory species which stick to a single location their entire life are exposed to a more limited range of parasites. Or perhaps because migration is such a stressful exercise, migratory birds can become stressed during such journeys and become more vulnerable to a wider variety of parasites. Or it might be both!
Due to the diseases that parasitic roundworms can cause in birds, it is important to also keep them in mind when considering the effects that global perturbations such as climate change can have on the ecology of migratory species. As migratory birds change their arrival and departure timing, and are also forced to alter their migratory routes and stopover sites, they might become more stressed and susceptible to parasitism. Furthermore, altered migratory routes and stopover sites can also mean that migratory birds might be introducing their rich suite of worms to new areas and potential hosts.