A parasite's shift to a new host may have serious evolutionary consequences, since host switching usually is associated with a change in virulence and may lead to the evolution of emerging diseases. This phenomenon remains insufficiently studied in wildlife. Here, we combine microscopic examination of blood films and PCR-based methods to investigate the natural host specificity of Haemoproteus and Plasmodium spp. in birds of 4 families of the Passeriformes within a small geographic area. The material was collected on the Curonian Spit in the Baltic Sea between May and July in 2003–2004. A nested-PCR protocol was used for amplifying and sequencing a fragment of 480 nucleotides of the cytochrome b gene of the mtDNA of these parasites. Blood samples from 282 birds, which were positive both by microscopic examination of blood films and mtDNA amplification, were used in this study. We found that Haemoproteus majoris (lineages hPARUS1, hCCF5, hWW2, and hPHSIB1), Haemoproteus sp. (hWW1), Plasmodium (Haemamoeba) sp. (pSGS1), and Plasmodium (Haemamoeba) sp. (pGRW11) are capable of infecting birds belonging to different families of passeriform birds. Some species of Haemoproteus are less specific than have been traditionally believed. Haemoproteus majoris appears to have a genetic predisposition to have a broad host range. The level of host specificity varies markedly among different species of hemosporidian parasites of birds. The natural host range is thus not a reliable taxonomic character in the systematics of these parasites in the form in which it is still accepted in some recent taxonomic studies.
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1 December 2006
VARIATION IN HOST SPECIFICITY BETWEEN SPECIES OF AVIAN HEMOSPORIDIAN PARASITES: EVIDENCE FROM PARASITE MORPHOLOGY AND CYTOCHROME B GENE SEQUENCES