Climate change to fuel northern spread of avian malaria

Sep 19, 2012
Avian malaria was found in Alaska in the Common redpoll, pictured here. Credit: Jenny Carlson, SF State

Malaria has been found in birds in parts of Alaska, and global climate change will drive it even farther north, according to a new study published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

The could prove devastating to arctic that have never encountered the disease and thus have no resistance to it, said San Francisco State University Associate Professor of Biology Ravinder Sehgal, one of the study's co-authors. It may also help scientists understand the on the spread of human malaria, which is caused by a similar parasite.

Researchers examined from birds collected at four sites of varying latitude, with Anchorage as a southern point, Denali and Fairbanks as middle points and Coldfoot as a northern point, roughly 600 miles north of Anchorage. They found infected birds in Anchorage and Fairbanks but not in Coldfoot.

Using satellite imagery and other data, researchers were able to predict how environments will change due to global warming—and where malaria parasites will be able to survive in the future. They found that by 2080, the disease will have spread north to Coldfoot and beyond.

"Right now, there's no avian malaria above latitude 64 degrees, but in the future, with global warming, that will certainly change," Sehgal said. The northerly spread is alarming, he added, because there are species in the North American arctic that have never been exposed to the disease and may be highly susceptible to it.

Avian malaria was found in Alaska in the Savannah sparrow, pictured here. Credit: Jenny Carlson, SF State

"For example, penguins in zoos die when they get malaria, because far southern birds have not been exposed to malaria and thus have not developed any resistance to it," he said. "There are birds in the north, such as snowy owls or gyrfalcons, that could experience the same thing."

The study's lead author is Claire Loiseau, a former postdoctoral fellow in Sehgal's laboratory at SF State. Ryan Harrigan, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, provided data modeling for the project. The research was funded by grants from the AXA Foundation and National Geographic.

Researchers are still unsure how the disease is being spread in Alaska and are currently collecting additional data to determine which mosquito species are transmitting the Plasmodium parasites that cause malaria.

The data may also indicate if and how malaria in humans will spread northward. Modern medicine makes it difficult to track the natural spread of the disease, Sehgal said, but monitoring birds may provide clues as to how may effect the spread of human malaria.

Explore further: DNA samples from fungi collections provide key to mushroom 'tree of life'

More information: "First evidence and predictions of Plasmodium transmission in Alaskan bird populations" was written by Claire Loiseau, Ryan J. Harrigan, Anthony K. Cornel, Sue L. Guers, Molly Dodge, Timothy Marzec, Jenny S. Carlson, Bruce Seppi and Ravinder N. M. Sehgal and published Sept. 19 in PLoS ONE.

Related Stories

New tool to map malaria developed

Oct 15, 2010

Malaria kills an estimated 1 million people each year, but humans aren't the only animals under attack. Birds also contract the disease through mosquito bites. SF State biologists have been studying malaria ...

SF State scientists expose new threat to spotted owl

May 28, 2008

A new study provides a baseline distribution of blood parasites and strains in Spotted Owls, suggesting a more fragile immune health than previously understood for the already threatened Northern and California Spotted Owls.

Study: Climate change one factor in malaria spread

Mar 02, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Climate change is one reason malaria is on the rise in some parts of the world, new research finds, but other factors such as migration and land-use changes are likely also at play. The research, published ...

Recommended for you

Estuaries protect Dungeness crabs from deadly parasites

18 hours ago

Parasitic worms can pose a serious threat to the Dungeness crab, a commercially important fishery species found along the west coast of North America. The worms are thought to have caused or contributed to ...

Our bond with dogs may go back more than 27,000 years

May 21, 2015

Dogs' special relationship to humans may go back 27,000 to 40,000 years, according to genomic analysis of an ancient Taimyr wolf bone reported in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on May 21. Earlier genome ...

Social structure 'helps birds avoid a collision course'

May 21, 2015

The sight of skilful aerial manoeuvring by flocks of Greylag geese to avoid collisions with York's Millennium Bridge intrigued mathematical biologist Dr Jamie Wood. It raised the question of how birds collectively ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.