Are chronic avian haemosporidian infections costly in wild birds?


  • Muhammad Asghar,

  • Dennis Hasselquist,

  • Staffan Bensch

M. Asghar (, D. Hasselquist and S. Bensch, Dept of Biology, Molecular Ecology and Evolution Lab, Lund Univ., Ecology Building, SE-223 62 Lund, Sweden.


One group of commonly found parasites in birds, for which fitness consequences and effects on life history traits have been much debated are Haemosporidian blood parasites. In a long term study population of great reed warblers Acrocephalus arundinaceus in Sweden, previous studies have shown that the Haemosporidian blood parasites are in their chronic phase during the breeding season and that the fitness of infected and non-infected birds are similar. In the present study, we quantified parasite intensity (parasitemia) in 718 adults great reed warblers sampled between 1987 and 1998 for the three most common parasite species; Haemoproteus payevskyi (lineage GRW1), Plasmodium ashfordi (GRW2) and Plasmodium relictum (GRW4). We verified that the q-PCR method is accurately quantifying Haemoproteus payevskyi (GRW1) as it was highly correlated with the number of parasites seen under microscope. Frequency of mixed infections with two lineages was significantly higher than expected based on the prevalence of each of the three parasite lineages. The mean level of parasitemia was significantly different for the three lineages and individual birds had repeatable parasitemia levels between years. Females tended to have a higher parasitemia than males for all three parasite lineages combined. Females with higher GRW1 parasitemia tended to arrive later in spring to their breeding sites. There was a negative correlation between parasitemia and number of fledged offspring for GRW1, and a tendency for a negative correlation between GRW2 parasitemia and the proportion of recruiting offspring. Overall our results demonstrate that chronic Haemosporidian infections can have slight but significant effects on host life history traits, and therefore may act as important selective agents in wild bird populations.