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article imageSouth African birds reveal parasite diversity

By Tim Sandle     Jun 13, 2015 in Science
The colorful and varied birds of South Africa contain a range of different pathogens and parasites. Among this array of microscopic organisms are the single-celled animals that cause malaria. The range has surprised scientists.
Researchers have been looking at the birds of South Africa, with a view to see what the role of birds is in the transmission of malaria. The focus was primarily on parasites in the genus Plasmodium, which cause malaria in mammals; and parasites of the genera Haemoproteus and Leucocytozoon. It is hoped that, through this type of research, an understanding can be gained as to how parasitic infections are transmitted as well as a deeper understanding of the lifecycle of the parasites.
The extent of parasitic infection surprised the research group, who worked out from Drexel University. Based on hundreds of bird samples taken from within Malawi, it was discovered that 79 percent of birds carried parasites. The majority of these parasites were haemosporidian.
What was of equal interest, in relation to malaria, was the extent of variation of different parasites plus the identification of some novel parasites. 81 percent of the recovered Plasmodium parasites had previously not been characterized.
This discovery counters views that malaria is simply a ‘human’ disease; and demonstrates how widespread the infection is throughout the animal kingdom (in addition to birds, many other animals are affected.) What is less clear is how the associated disease of malaria is manifest – in terms of ‘mild’ or ‘severe’.
An interesting fact about the rate of infection is that birds that tended gather in flocks of single-species were less likely to have a parasitic infection compared with mixed communities of birds.
The data from Malawi adds to similar data gathered from Mozambique, Congo, Uganda and Kenya. Here similar patterns have been revealed.
The findings have been published in the journal PLOS One. The research paper is “Parasite Prevalence Corresponds to Host Life History in a Diverse Assemblage of Afrotropical Birds and Haemosporidian Parasites.”
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