What Causes Avian Malaria?

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a six-part series.

Beautiful and wonderful birds around the world are facing extinction due to avian diseases such as avian malaria. 


Passerine birds-or perching birds- are the most common victims of avian malaria. But most penguins (non-passerine birds)  are very susceptible to Plasmodium and avian malaria is potentially disastrous for both wild and captive populations.


Plasmodium relictum, a protozoan parasite, is the main parasite that causes avian malaria and may be lethal to species which have not evolved resistance to the disease-infecting their red blood cells-or erythrocytes.

Wait, Mark! What are protozoan parasites?

This may sound complicated. But don’t fear! It’s pretty simple.

Most protozoa living in the environment are not harmful-they are what we call a eukaryotic organism but consist of only a single cell and so we need a microscope to be able to see them!


Here’s a shiny looking microscope for ya!

Protozoan parasites, however, cannot live in the open environment on their own like other protozoa.

They’re different…

In fact, they mooch off other organisms (such as birds) to obtain protection and nourishment-cheeky indeed. However, scientists aren’t even sure of the number of protozoan species that induce avian malaria.

Oh, and by the way, the parasite is moved around by infected female mosquitoes-mostly Culex-where the mosquito picks up the parasite when it feeds on the blood of a infected bird, and then it passes the parasite on when it feeds again (on the blood of a non-infected bird).

Consider the Hawaiian Islands-Niihau, Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Lanai, Kahoolawe, Maui and the Big Island. In this region, the mosquito that transmits the parasite is the common house mosquito, Culex quinquefasciatus.

The Hawaiian Islands

The Hawaiian Islands

Here’s what one of them looks like!

Culex quinquefasciatus

C. quinquefasciatus.  The parasite is picked up when feeding on the blood of an infected bird.

Ricklefs, R.E. et al. (2004). Evolutionary Relationships, Cospeciation, and Host Switching in Avian Malaria Parasites. Syst. Biol., 53(1):111-119.

Cover image taken from: http://fc08.deviantart.net/fs70/i/2013/078/d/6/culex_pipiens_mosquito_by_garethjns-d54pt8e.jpg

Image taken from:http://animal-unique.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/australian-pelican.html [1st December 2014].

Image taken from:http://ak5.picdn.net/shutterstock/videos/537799/preview/stock-footage-researchers-working-in-lab-with-microscope-close-up.jpg [1st December 2014].

Image taken from:http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/NaturalHazards/view.php?id=41574 [1st December 2014].

Image taken from:https://www.vectorbase.org/sites/default/files/ftp/image_gallery/Culex%20Species/C.%20quinquefasciatus/1762.jpg [1st December 2014].




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