Quantifying variation in the ability to fight infection among free-living hosts is challenging and often constrained to one or a few measures of immune activity. While such measures are typically taken to reflect host resistance, they can also be shaped by pathogen effects, for example, if more virulent strains trigger more robust immune responses. Here, we test the extent to which pathogen-specific antibody levels, a commonly used measure of immunocompetence, reflect variation in host resistance versus pathogen virulence, and whether these antibodies effectively clear infection. House finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) from resistant and susceptible populations were inoculated with > 50 isolates of their novel Mycoplasma gallisepticum pathogen collected over a 20-year period during which virulence increased. Serum antibody levels were higher in finches from resistant populations and increased with year of pathogen sampling. Higher antibody levels, however, did not subsequently give rise to greater reductions in pathogen load. Our results show that antibody responses can be shaped by levels of host resistance and pathogen virulence, and do not necessarily signal immune clearance ability. While the generality of this novel finding remains unclear, particularly outside of mycoplasmas, it cautions against using antibody levels as implicit proxies for immunocompetence and/or host resistance.
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