Environmental temperature affects prevalence of blood parasites of birds on an elevation gradient: Implications for disease in a warming climate

  • Zamora-Vilchis I
  • Williams S
  • Johnson C
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Background The rising global temperature is predicted to expand the distribution of vector-borne diseases both in latitude and altitude. Many host communities could be affected by increased prevalence of disease, heightening the risk of extinction for many already threatened species. To understand how host communities could be affected by changing parasite distributions, we need information on the distribution of parasites in relation to variables like temperature and rainfall that are predicted to be affected by climate change. Methodology/Principal Findings We determined relations between prevalence of blood parasites, temperature, and seasonal rainfall in a bird community of the Australian Wet Tropics along an elevation gradient. We used PCR screening to investigate the prevalence and lineage diversity of four genera of blood parasites (Plasmodium, Haemoproteus, Leucocytozoon and Trypanosoma) in 403 birds. The overall prevalence of the four genera of blood parasites was 32.3%, with Haemoproteus the predominant genus. A total of 48 unique lineages were detected. Independent of elevation, parasite prevalence was positively and strongly associated with annual temperature. Parasite prevalence was elevated during the dry season. Conclusions/Significance Low temperatures of the higher elevations can help to reduce both the development of avian haematozoa and the abundance of parasite vectors, and hence parasite prevalence. In contrast, high temperatures of the lowland areas provide an excellent environment for the development and transmission of haematozoa. We showed that rising temperatures are likely to lead to increased prevalence of parasites in birds, and may force shifts of bird distribution to higher elevations. We found that upland tropical areas are currently a low-disease habitat and their conservation should be given high priority in management plans under climate change.

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  • Itzel Zamora-Vilchis

  • Stephen E. Williams

  • Christopher N. Johnson

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