Researchers Find Malaria Parasite in East Coast’s White-Tailed Deer

by AMNH on

Research posts

Museum researchers and collaborators have discovered a malaria parasite, Plasmodium odocoilei, which may be present in up to 25 percent of white-tailed deer along the East Coast of the United States. Before this study, published in the journal Science AdvancesP. odocoilei had only been documented in one paper published in 1967—and that case was in a single deer in Texas. The study also suggests that another, as yet undescribed, species of malaria parasite may also be present in some deer.

A white-tailed deer standing amongst greenery with its head turned toward the viewer.
A white-tailed deer at Washington D.C.'s National Zoo.
©E. Martinsen

“Malaria parasites are quite diverse,” said Susan Perkins, a curator in the Museum’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology and an author of the study. “They infect many different kinds of vertebrates, including birds, lizards, and bats, but it was very exciting to find this deer malaria parasite right in our own backyards.” 

Researchers at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), the team leading the study, first found what turned out to be P. odocoilei while screening mosquitoes for bird malaria parasites at the Smithsonian's National Zoo. After finding the parasite in mosquitoes, the researchers began to look for it in white-tailed deer. 

The study found that malaria parasites are widespread in white-tailed deer, raising questions about whether these parasites can be transmitted to other hoofed species such as cows on dairy farms or antelopes in zoos. There appear to be two genetic lineages, probably different species, of the parasites, which are common across deer populations. The malaria parasites found in a deer species are not considered a danger to human, but could help researchers learn more about the health of wildlife populations.

The malaria parasite Plasmodium odocoilei seen under a microscope, visible here as colorful spots within a bright circle.
The malaria parasite Plasmodium odocoilei seen under a microscope.
Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

“People intensively study white-tailed deer and their pathogens, so it was surprising to find two malaria parasites,” said Rob Fleischer, co-author of the paper and head of SCBI’s Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics. “This kind of research is vital to helping us better understand wildlife health threats and potential transmission of pathogens between native wildlife and endangered animals in human care.”

The discovery has led to a host of new questions that the team hopes to answer in the course of additional research.