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Local host specialization, host-switching, and dispersal shape the regional distributions of avian haemosporidian parasites

  • Vincenzo A. Ellis
  • Michael D. Collins
  • Matthew C.I. Medeiros
  • Eloisa H R Sari
  • Elyse D. Coffey
  • Rebecca C. Dickerson
  • Camile Lugarini
  • Jeffrey A. Stratford
  • Donata R. Henry
  • Loren Merrill
  • Alix E. Matthews
  • Alison A. Hanson
  • Jackson R. Roberts
  • Michael Joyce
  • Melanie R. Kunkel
  • Robert E Ricklefs
Publishing year: 2015-09-08
Language: English
Pages: 11294-11299
Publication/Series: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Volume: 112
Issue: 36
Document type: Journal article
Publisher: National Acad Sciences

Abstract english

The drivers of regional parasite distributions are poorly understood, especially in comparison with those of free-living species. For vector-transmitted parasites, in particular, distributions might be influenced by host-switching and by parasite dispersal with primary hosts and vectors. We surveyed haemosporidian blood parasites (Plasmodium and Haemoproteus) of small land birds in eastern North America to characterize a regional parasite community. Distributions of parasite populations generally reflected distributions of their hosts across the region. However, when the interdependence between hosts and parasites was controlled statistically, local host assemblages were related to regional climatic gradients, but parasite assemblages were not. Moreover, because parasite assemblage similarity does not decrease with distance when controlling for host assemblages and climate, parasites evidently disperse readily within the distributions of their hosts. The degree of specialization on hosts varied in some parasite lineages over short periods and small geographic distances independently of the diversity of available hosts and potentially competing parasite lineages. Nonrandom spatial turnover was apparent in parasite lineages infecting one host species that was well-sampled within a single year across its range, plausibly reflecting localized adaptations of hosts and parasites. Overall, populations of avian hosts generally determine the geographic distributions of haemosporidian parasites. However, parasites are not dispersal-limited within their host distributions, and they may switch hosts readily.


  • Zoology
  • Ecology
  • Avian malaria
  • Community assembly
  • Emerging infectious disease
  • Haemosporida
  • Parasite communities


  • ISSN: 0027-8424
Vincenzo Ellis
E-mail: vincenzo [dot] alexander_ellis [at] biol [dot] lu [dot] se

Visiting research fellow


Sölvegatan 37, Lund