25% US white-tailed deer are infected with Malaria. The first ever native malaria in American mammals has been discovered.
Smithsonian scientists have found that 25 percent of white-tailed deer across United States are infected by malaria and this is also the first and only native malaria ever discovered in any American mammal.
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Researchers were catching mosquitoes at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo to find malaria species that can infects bird when they stumbled across a malaria parasite, Plasmodium odocoilei in white-tailed deer. No previous study has reported malaria parasites in white-tailed deer and also in such huge numbers.
“One out of every four deer that you see on your lawn or in the woods is infected with malaria,” said lead researcher Ellen Martinsen from the Smithsonian's Conservation Biology. But “The parasite levels in the blood are so low that they are undetectable by traditional techniques with a light microscope.”
Interestingly, no symptoms of illness have been observed in any of the white-tailed. The health condition of the affected white-tails was not much different from the animals without the parasite, indicating that the new malaria strain may not be too harmful for deer.
Malaria is caused by parasites that are transmitted by the bites of infected mosquitoes. So far around 200 species of malaria have been discovered but none was known to exist in mammals found in North or South America.
In 1967, a renowned researcher reported discovering malaria in a single deer in Texas but it remained poorly understood since no further investigations was made in this regard.
Researchers hypothesize that newly discovered malaria parasites might have travelled through ancestors of white-tail deer across Beringia, a land bridge on which ancient white-tailed deer lived thousands of years ago and the bridge was once connecting Asia and North America.
Despite being extremely widespread among white-tails, researchers have found no evidence of the disease in other species of deer or distant relative species in North America including elk, mule deer, blacktail deer, moose, reindeer and brocket deer.
The discovery provides new insight into the distribution and evolutionary history of malaria parasites in mammals. Malaria is a life-threatening disease not only for humans but for many species of wildlife too and the study can help prevent the spread of disease in rest of white-tails and in other animals as well.
“Malaria is a top parasitic disease in humans and wildlife,” said Martinsen. “It’s important that we gain a better understanding of its diversity and distribution not just across humans but across other species too.”
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Researchers are hoping to conduct further researchers in deer species throughout South or North America as well as examining the bones of dead deer to find more clues about how malaria in mammals was evolved in America.