New Zealand Journal of Ecology (2008) 32(1): 98- 102

Avian malaria parasites (Plasmodium spp.) in Dunedin and on the Otago Peninsula, southern New Zealand

Short Communication
H.J.W. Sturrock 1
D.M. Tompkins *,2
  1. Department of Zoology, University of Otago, PO Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand
  2. Landcare Research, Private Bag 1930, Dunedin, New Zealand
*  Corresponding author

There is concern that avian malaria may be partly responsible for fluctuations in yellow-eyed penguin (Megadyptes antipodes) populations in New Zealand. Recent findings, however, have provided no evidence of avian malaria parasites infecting yellow-eyed penguins on the Otago Peninsula, raising questions as to whether this area is currently free of such parasites. To test this possibility we collected blood samples from 109 individuals of five non-native bird species known to carry malarial parasites elsewhere in New Zealand. Molecular screening by polymerase chain reaction revealed 6% of the sampled birds were positive for malarial parasites, indicating that a local reservoir of infection is present. Sequence data revealed a generalist strain of Plasmodium is present, one that infects a number of native and non-native bird species elsewhere in the country. The absence of this generalist strain in yellow-eyed penguins, some of which were sampled during the same period as the current study, may be due to low levels of mosquito vectors of disease during the study period, low densities of non-native birds around yellow-eyed penguin colonies, or infected penguins dying before they could be sampled. Continued monitoring of mosquito populations and the factors that affect their densities should be included in the future management of native birds in this area.