Detecting shifts of transmission areas in avian blood parasites — a phylogenetic approach


Olof Hellgren, Fax: +46 (0) 46-2224716; E-mail:


We investigated the degree of geographical shifts of transmission areas of vector-borne avian blood parasites (Plasmodium, Haemoproteus and Leucocytozoon) over ecological and evolutionary timescales. Of 259 different parasite lineages obtained from 5886 screened birds sampled in Europe and Africa, only two lineages were confirmed to have current transmission in resident bird species in both geographical areas. We used a phylogenetic approach to show that parasites belonging to the genera Haemoproteus and Leucocytozoon rarely change transmission area and that these parasites are restricted to one resident bird fauna over a long evolutionary time span and are not freely spread between the continents with the help of migratory birds. Lineages of the genus Plasmodium seem more freely spread between the continents. We suggest that such a reduced transmission barrier of Plasmodium parasites is caused by their higher tendency to infect migratory bird species, which might facilitate shifting of transmission area. Although vector-borne parasites of these genera apparently can shift between a tropical and a temperate transmission area and these areas are linked with an immense amount of annual bird migration, our data suggest that novel introductions of these parasites into resident bird faunas are rather rare evolutionary events.