Clarifying the dehydration cascade: the relationship between water, stress, and immune function in squamates
There is considerable recent interest in the dynamic nature of immune function in the context of an animal’s internal and external environment. An important focus within this field of ecoimmunology is on how availability of resources such as energy can alter immune function. Water is an additional resource that drives animal development, physiology, and behavior, yet the influence hydration has on immunity has received limited attention. In particular, hydration state may have the greatest potential to drive fluctuations in immunity and other physiological functions in species that live in water-limited environments where they may experience periods of dehydration. To shed light on the sensitivity of immune function to hydration state, I first tested the effect of hydration states (hydrated, dehydrated, and rehydrated) and digestive states on innate immunity in the Gila monster, a desert-dwelling lizard. Though dehydration is often thought to be stressful and, if experienced chronically, likely to decrease immune function, dehydration elicited an increase in immune response in this species, while digestive state had no effect. Next, I tested whether dehydration was indeed stressful, and tested a broader range of immune measures. My findings validated the enhanced innate immunity across additional measures and revealed that Gila monsters lacked a significant stress hormone response during dehydration (though results were suggestive). I next sought to test if life history (in terms of environmental stability) drives these differences in dehydration responses using a comparative approach. I compared four confamilial pairs of squamate species that varied in habitat type within each pair—four species that are adapted to xeric environments and four that are adapted to more mesic environments. No effect of life history was detected between groups, but hydration was a driver of some measures of innate immunity and of stress hormone concentrations in multiple species. Additionally, species that exhibited a stress response to dehydration did not have decreased innate immunity, suggesting these physiological responses may often be decoupled. My dissertation work provides new insight into the relationship between hydration, stress, and immunity, and it may inform future work exploring disease transmission or organismal responses to climate change.