Ecology and conservation biology of avian malaria


Dennis A. LaPointe, U.S. Geological Survey, Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center, Hawaii National Park, HI 96718.


Avian malaria is a worldwide mosquito-borne disease caused by Plasmodium parasites. These parasites occur in many avian species but primarily affect passerine birds that have not evolved with the parasite. Host pathogenicity, fitness, and population impacts are poorly understood. In contrast to continental species, introduced avian malaria poses a substantial threat to naive birds on Hawaii, the Galapagos, and other archipelagoes. In Hawaii, transmission is maintained by susceptible native birds, competence and abundance of mosquitoes, and a disease reservoir of chronically infected native birds. Although vector habitat and avian communities determine the geographic distribution of disease, climate drives transmission patterns ranging from continuous high infection in warm lowland forests, seasonal infection in midelevation forests, and disease-free refugia in cool high-elevation forests. Global warming is expected to increase the occurrence, distribution, and intensity of avian malaria across this elevational gradient and threaten high-elevation refugia, which is the key to survival of many susceptible Hawaiian birds. Increased temperatures may have already increased global avian malaria prevalence and contributed to an emergence of disease in New Zealand.