Researchers at the University of Vermont (UVM) and the Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute recently published a study on the first-ever malaria parasite known to live in a deer species. According to a press release from UVM, a malaria parasite called Plasmodium odocoilei was found in whitetail deer, and these were not isolated cases. Researchers believe the parasite is actually incredibly widespread and is estimated to be present in roughly 25 percent of all whitetail deer on the East Coast. Fortunately, the parasite is not believed to be much of a threat to humans.
“You never know what you’re going to find when you’re out in nature—and you look,” Ellen Martinsen, the adjunct faculty member at UVM who first discovered the parasite, 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.”
Martinsen was collecting mosquitoes for the Smithsonian’s National Zoo when she identified a parasite containing a DNA profile she did not recognize. Further research into the parasite found that it infected whitetail deer, but in such small numbers that it had not been identified until now. Researchers behind the study noted that the parasite was first suspected to reside in deer back in 1967, but since malaria parasites did not infect mammals in both North or South America, scientists treated that report like a sighting of Big Foot. Only now with advanced techniques—and a little patience—are scientists able to prove the tiny parasite’s existence.
“It’s quite surprising to discover something about a species in our backyards, much less so about the rare and endangered species in faraway places,” said co-author Rob Fleischer in a press release from the Smithsonian. “This kind of research is vital to helping us better understand wildlife health threats and potential transmission of pathogens between native wildlife and endangered animals in human care.”
The study involved a screening of more than 300 whitetail deer from across 17 states. 41 of the animals contained the parasite, but all were from eastern states. None of the animals from western states were found with the parasite. Other species tested by researchers, such as cows or elk, also did not contain the parasite.
The new discovery also raises some worrying questions. Can the parasite affect humans? Will it jump to other wildlife or domestic animals? How is it affecting deer populations?
At a time when the Zika virus is causing a panic in South America, researchers are quick to calm worries and state that the newly discovered parasite should not infect humans. How it impacts deer and other wildlife populations however, is now cause for speculation. Martinsen says that she suspects the parasite to have only a mild affect on the overall whitetail population, but will need to complete further research before she and her team could say for sure.
There are more than 100 different species of malaria parasites. Of these, Plasmodium falciparum is considered the most prevalent and deadliest in humans.