Bird species across the globe are suffering and dying from a type of malariaand while these strains are not infectious to humans, they’re spreadingquickly through global transmission hotspots.

An international team, including The University of Queensland’s Dr NicholasClark, has been conducting research to understand where and why the diseasehas been spreading so rapidly.

“Avian malaria now affects somewhere between 13 and 14 per cent – on average –of all wild birds worldwide,” Dr Clark said.

“It’s caused by a group of blood parasites – known as haemosporidian parasites– and much like human malaria is transmitted via blood-feeding insects likemosquitos.

“It can’t harm humans but is known to have significant impacts on birdpopulations.”

For example, when avian malaria was introduced into Hawaii in the late 1800sto early 1900s, it was one of the major causes of extinction of about one-third of the 55 known species of Hawaiian honeycreepers.

“We’ve found that there are hotspots transmitting these parasites across theworld,” he said.

“The most significant hotspot was in the Sahara-Arabian region, with localhotspots in North America, Europe and Australia, depending on differentparasite variants.

“In fact, here in Australia, some of these blood parasites are causing highinfection rates in our songbirds, including silvereyes – Zosterops lateralis– and many species of honeyeaters – the Meliphagidae family.”

The research team compiled and analysed what is likely the largest data set ofwild bird infections with avian malaria parasites to date, with more than53,000 wild birds examined.

They combined infection data with remotely sensedenvironmental data, such as climate or forest conditions, and bird lifehistory information, such as body size and migration patterns, into computermodels to identify which factors best described the infection risk with avianmalaria parasites.

Dr Konstans Wells, who leads the Biodiversity and Health Ecology researchgroup at Swansea University, said predicting which conditions facilitate theinfection of wild birds with avian malaria is crucial for understandinginfectious disease hazards.

“Since each bird species is unique in its ecological niche and is differentlyexposed to disease-transmitting insects during breeding and migration,infection risks are not the same for different bird species,” he said.

“Conditions that enable infection in different areas across the world arecompletely context-dependent.

“For example, long distance migrating birds were more likely to be infected insome continents but less likely in others.

“There’s no easy answer with so many factors at play, but we’re going tocontinue to research to find out how to best protect the world’s bird speciesfrom this deadly disease.”

The research has been published in Global Ecology and Biogeography (DOI:0.1111/GEB.13390).

Images: A pied butcherbird. Image credit: Dr Nicholas Clark.

A satin bowerbird. Image: Dr Nicholas Clark

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