Avian pox and Darwin’s finches

Why do some animals show signs of disease but not others? Many environmental and genetic factors may influence a host’s susceptibility to parasites and pathogens. As a Rose Postdoctoral Fellow at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology I am studying genetic and epigenetic factors that affect the susceptibility or resistance of finches to avian pox.

This poor medium ground finch is missing the lower part of his right leg and some toes on his left, likely due to pox.

This poor medium ground finch is missing the lower part of his right leg and some toes on his left, likely due to pox.

How do hosts respond to introduced pathogens?

Like P. downsi, avian pox is introduced to the Galápagos Islands. Pox infection causes lesions on the birds’ feet and faces which can inhibit vision and foraging. Although we don’t know how much mortality pox causes in Galápagos birds, pox has been implicated in the decline of endemic birds in Hawaii. Even though pox is relatively new to the islands, Darwin’s finches seem to mount immune responses against infection. Are there certain genetic variants that confer more resistance to infection? In collaboration with the Charles Darwin Research Station I am hoping to find out.