Vector-borne Plasmodium spp. infect a wide range of bird species. Although infections may be asymptomatic, certain genera, especially those that evolved in regions without endemic malaria, appear particularly susceptible to symptomatic disease, leading to morbidity and mortality. High mortalities associated with malaria infections have been documented in captive species of Sphenisciformes, Somateria, and Larosterna, all genera that evolved in climates with low mosquito exposure. To better characterize trends in Plasmodium-related mortality in a zoological collection in New York, necropsy reports for birds of all three genera that died between 1998 and February 2018 were analyzed; comparisons were made between birds that died with or without evidence of malaria infection. A seasonal peak in deaths was observed in birds regardless of their malaria status. There was no significant difference in the age of birds at death between malaria-positive and malaria-negative animals. These results suggest that age and season of death were not associated with malaria status. To investigate an association between parasite lineage and clinical outcome, polymerase chain reaction was used to identify parasite lineage in necropsied birds as well as healthy birds sampled as part of surveillance studies. Twelve different Plasmodium lineages were identified. The relative prevalence of parasite lineages was compared between necropsy and surveillance samples. A single parasite lineage, SGS1 (species: Plasmodium relictum), was significantly more likely to be found in surveillance samples; it was detected in a plurality of surveillance data but found in only one necropsy case. Other parasite lineages were more likely to be found in necropsies than in surveillance samples, most notably SEIAUR01 (species: Plasmodium cathemerium). These data may be consistent with a difference in virulence between parasite lineages. This investigation has implications for the monitoring and care of vulnerable avian species.
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