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Data from: Predictors and immunological correlates of sublethal mercury exposure in vampire bats

Becker, Daniel J.; Chumchal, Matthew M.; Bentz, Alexandra B.; Platt, Steven G.; Czirják, Gábor A.; Rainwater, Thomas R.; Altizer, Sonia; Streicker, Daniel G.

Mercury (Hg) is a pervasive heavy metal that often enters the environment from anthropogenic sources such as gold mining and agriculture. Chronic exposure to Hg can impair immune function, reducing the ability of animals to resist or recover from infections. How Hg influences immunity and susceptibility remains unknown for bats, which appear immunologically distinct from other mammals and are reservoir hosts of many pathogens of importance to human and animal health. We here quantify total Hg (THg) in hair collected from common vampire bats (Desmodus rotundus), which feed on blood and are the main reservoir hosts of rabies virus in Latin America. We examine how diet, sampling site and year, and bat demography influence THg and test the consequences of this variation for eight immune measures. In two populations from Belize, THg concentrations in bats were best explained by an interaction between long-term diet inferred from stable isotopes and year. Bats that foraged more consistently on domestic animals exhibited higher THg. However, relationships between diet and THg were evident only in 2015 but not in 2014, which could reflect recent environmental perturbations associated with agriculture. THg concentrations were low relative to values previously observed in other bat species but still correlated with bat immunity. Bats with higher THg had more neutrophils, weaker bacterial killing ability and impaired innate immunity. These patterns suggest that temporal variation in Hg exposure may impair bat innate immunity and increase susceptibility to pathogens such as bacteria. Unexpected associations between low-level Hg exposure and immune function underscore the need to better understand the environmental sources of Hg exposure in bats and the consequences for bat immunity and susceptibility.
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