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Ecology and diagnosis of introduced avian malaria in Hawaiian forest birds

February 14, 2006

Avian malaria is a disease caused by species of protozoan parasites (Plasmodium) that infect birds. Related species commonly infect reptiles, birds and mammals in tropical and temperate regions of the world. Transmitted by mosquitoes, the parasites spend part of their lives in the red blood cells of birds (Figure 1). Avian malaria is common in continental areas, but is absent from the most isolated island archipelagos where mosquitoes do not naturally occur. More than 40 different species of avian Plasmodium have been described, but only one, P. relictum, has been introduced to the Hawaiian Islands. Because they evolved without natural exposure to avian malaria, native Hawaiian honeycreepers are extremely susceptible to this disease. Malaria currently limits the geographic distribution of native species, has population level impacts on survivorship, and is limiting the recovery of threatened and endangered species of forest birds.