Photoperiod affects the expression of sex and species differences in leukocyte number and leukocyte trafficking in congeneric hamsters

S. D. Bilbo, F. S. Dhabhar, K. Viswanathan, A. Saul, R. J. Nelson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Sex differences in immune function are well documented. These sex differences may be modulated by social and environmental factors. Individuals of polygynous species generally exhibit more pronounced sex differences in immune parameters than individuals of monogamous species, often displaying an energetic trade-off between enhanced immunity and high mating success. During winter, animals contend with environmental conditions (e.g. low temperatures and decreased food availability) that evoke energetic-stress responses; many mammals restrict reproduction in response to photoperiod as part of an annual winter coping strategy. To test the hypothesis that extant sex and species differences in immune surveillance may be modulated by photoperiod, we examined leukocyte numbers in males and females of two closely related hamster species (Phodopus). As predicted, uniparental P. sungorus exhibited a robust sex difference, with total white blood cells, total lymphocytes, T cells, and B cells higher in females than males, during long days when reproduction occurs, but not during short days when reproduction usually stops. In contrast, biparental male and female P. campbelli exhibited comparable leukocyte numbers during both long and short days. To study sex differences in stress responses, we also examined immune cell trafficking in response to an acute (2 h) restraint stressor. During stressful challenges, it appears beneficial for immune cells to exit the blood and move to primary immune defense areas such as the skin, in preparation for potential injury or infection. Acute stress moved lymphocytes and monocytes out of the blood in all animals. Blood cortisol concentrations were increased in P. sungorus females compared to males at baseline (52%) and in response to restraint stress (38%), but only in long days. P. campbelli males and females exhibited comparable blood cortisol and stress responses during both long and short days. Our results suggest that interactions among social factors and the environment play a significant role in modulating sex and seasonal alterations in leukocyte numbers and stress responses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1027-1043
Number of pages17
Issue number8
StatePublished - Nov 2003
Externally publishedYes


  • Estradiol
  • HPA axis
  • Immune
  • Leukocytes
  • Monogamy
  • Polygyny
  • Social organization
  • Testosterone

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
  • Endocrinology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry


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