According to the latest news, a new type of malaria parasites has been found in white-tailed deer in the United States.
The research revealed that as many as one in four whitetail deer in some parts of the U.S. may carry malaria. Even though the strain is considered non-threatening to people, the findings raise questions about whether the parasite is affecting deer populations, and how, if so.
This news comes as a surprise, since deer are one of the better-studied wild animals; they are some of the more populous mammals and very popular game species for hunting, and they are often surveyed for disease.
So why, given the amount of research done on deer, haven’t more scientists discovered malaria among whitetails?
Ellen Martinsen, lead author of the paper and a postdoctoral fellow, stated that, because the level of infection is so low, the parasite is hard to detect with a traditional microscope; it took special equipment at the National Zoo to trace malaria in mosquitoes back to deer.
The team of researchers found the parasite accidentally when they were looking at DNA within the blood of mosquitoes at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. In a mosquito engorged with deer blood, they noticed the presence of genetic material that they didn’t recognize.
According to further analysis, it has been revealed that the genetic material came from a protozoan in the genus Plasmodium. The results of the study were published last Friday in the journal Science Advances.
Firstly, species in the genus Plasmodium are known as malarial parasites. The genus includes several species that spread malaria in humans, while other varieties infect nonhuman mammals, birds and reptiles. There are about 200 species worldwide in this genus.
In this recent study, scientists sampled blood from deer in 17 states and found 41 infected animals in 10 states; nearly 25 percent of the deer from Virginia and West Virginia had the parasite. None of these deer seemed to have any symptoms, however.
The findings are unlikely to have a direct impact on humans since Plasmodium odocoilei infects ungulates specifically, said study coauthor Joseph Schall of the University of Vermont in the press release. However, he added, they do highlight the link between human health and wider ecological systems.
There’s a sudden surge in interest in mosquito biology across the United States. This is a reminder of the importance of parasite surveys and basic natural history.
Although there was one scientific record of a malarial parasite found in a deer’s spleen in 1967, this is the first proof of a widely established malaria parasite in New World mammals, and it expands scientists’ knowledge of the malarial family tree.
All in all, not only does the discovery change our current understanding of malaria’s distribution and history in mammals, but it also allows scientists to date the split between the two forms of malaria present in white-tailed deer. And, last but not least, it points to malaria as a disease native to the Americas that resided for millions of years.
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