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One In Four U.S. White-Tailed Deer Have Malarial Parasite

Update Date: Feb 09, 2016 03:54 PM EST

She gathered mosquitoes while searching for bird-specific malaria a couple of years ago. Scientist Ellen Martinsen from The University of Vermont then discovered a DNA profile in the parasites within the insects that seemed perplexing.

It is only now, in a recent study, that she identifies the parasite to be Plasmodium odocoilei. It is a "malaria parasite" afflicting white-tailed deer.

This is the first-ever malaria parasite that seems to be infecting a deer species. Another first is that it is the only native malaria parasite found in a mammal in either the North or South America.

"You never know what you're going to find when you're out in nature - and you look," Martinsen said in a press release. "It's a parasite that has been hidden in the most iconic game animal in the United States. I just stumbled across it."

It is ubiquitous but also "cryptic" as the parasites are present in such low levels in the deer. With sensitive molecular techniques, her team understood its genetics, and also confirmed the illness in regions ranging from New York to West Virginia. The scientist believes that it might infect almost 25 percent of white-tailed deer in the East Coast.

Hence, while scientists point to a "divergence between the two forms of malaria" in white-tailed deer, they also show that it has been native to the Americas for millions of years.

"Malaria is a top parasitic disease in humans and wildlife," Martinsen said. "It's important that we gain a better understanding of its diversity and distribution not just across humans but across other species too."

The findings were published in Feb. 5,2016 issue of Science Advances.

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