Haematological and immunological characteristics of eastern hellbenders (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis) infected and co-infected with endo- and ectoparasites
Disease is among the leading causes of the global decline in amphibian populations. In North America, parasites and pathogens are among the factors implicated in precipitous population declines of the giant hellbender salamander (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis), but the incidence of infections and the responses of hellbenders to infections remain poorly studied. Here, we document the prevalence of leech and trypanosome infections in a wild population of eastern hellbenders (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis) and describe haematological and immunological characteristics of hellbenders harbouring these infections. We hypothesized that hellbenders parasitized by trypanosomes would be anaemic, that individuals infected with either or both parasites would exhibit shifts in white blood cell counts and that hellbenders infected with leeches would exhibit altered plasma bactericidal capacity. We found that 24 and 68% of hellbenders in our sample population were infected with leeches and trypanosomes, respectively, and 20% were co-infected with both parasites. We found no evidence suggestive of anaemia among infected individuals. However, hellbenders infected with either or both parasites exhibited marked shifts in circulating white blood cells that were consistent with predictable responses to parasitic infection. Additionally, we found that hellbenders harbouring leeches had much higher plasma bactericidal capacity than individuals without leeches, and we offer multiple potential mechanistic explanations for this observation. We also found evidence that cellular and serological immune responses to parasites were less robust in juvenile than adult hellbenders. This finding warrants further investigation in light of the demographic characteristics, specifically the scarcity of juvenile age classes, of hellbender populations where disease is a possible contributor to declines. Finally, we describe two methodological advances that will improve future studies seeking to diagnose trypanosome infections and to test the bactericidal capacity of hellbenders and perhaps other amphibians. Our study provides fundamental insights into how hellbenders respond physiologically to endo- and ectoparasites, which could ultimately prove useful for their conservation.