School of Biology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742 UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.
Avian malaria and related haematozoa are nearly ubiquitous parasites that can impose fitness costs of variable severity and may, in some cases, cause substantial mortality in their host populations. One example of the latter, the emergence of avian malaria in the endemic avifauna of Hawaii, has become a model for understanding the consequences of human-mediated disease introduction. The drastic declines of native Hawaiian birds due to avian malaria provided the impetus for examining more closely several aspects of host-parasite interactions in this system. Host-specificity is an important character determining the extent to which a parasite may emerge. Traditional parasite classification, however, has used host information as a character in taxonomical identification, potentially obscuring the true host range of many parasites. To improve upon previous methods, I first developed molecular tools to identify parasites infecting a particular host. I then used these molecular techniques to characterize host-specificity of parasites in the genera Plasmodium and Haemoproteus. I show that parasites in the genus Plasmodium exhibit low specificity and are therefore most likely to emerge in new hosts in the future. Subsequently, I characterized the global distribution of the single lineage of P. relictum that has emerged in Hawaii. I demonstrate that this parasite has a broad host distribution worldwide, that it is likely of Old World origin and that it has been introduced to numerous islands around the world, where it may have been overlooked as a cause of decline in native birds. I also demonstrate that morphological classification of P. relictum does not capture differences among groups of parasites that appear to be reproductively isolated based on molecular evidence. Finally, I examined whether reduced immunological capacity, which has been proposed to explain the susceptibility of Hawaiian endemics, is a general feature of an “island syndrome” in isolated avifauna of the remote Pacific. I show that, over multiple time scales, changes in immune response are not uniform and that observed changes probably reflect differences in genetic diversity, parasite exposure and life history that are unique to each species.