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Invasive Birds Carrying Exotic Avian Malaria Threaten Australian Wildlife, New Study Shows

Oct 20, 2015 06:00 PM EDT
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Birds called invasive Indian Mynas seem to be wreaking havoc in Australia. Researchers discovered that these birds are carrying exotic strands of avian malaria. While the Mynas cannot directly infect other birds, the disease's prevalence could significantly impact other native wildlife.

Avian malaria is caused by a parasite known as Plasmodium relictum, which ultimately destroys red blood cells via reduces oxygen circulation. Parasite carrying mosquitoes spread the parasite to birds who, in turn, passed it to other birds.   

To better understand the range of this disease, researchers from Griffith University observed invasive Indian Mynas in the South East Queensland region of Australia. Nicholas Clark, a Ph.D. candidate in the University's School of Environment, discovered that up to 40 percent of the Mynas in this area carry malaria parasites. Some of these birds were also found to be carriers of more exotics strains of malaria, according to a news release. This puts native birds such as parrots, magpies and butcher birds at an increased risk of infection.

"Malaria parasites are common in Australian birds but through the use of genetic techniques I have discovered they are more diverse than originally thought," Clark said in the release, and added that the malaria parasites found in Australia today most likely came from other countries, but are now being spread by Mynas. "These malaria parasites seem to have little effect on the Mynas but could be harmful to native birds as they come in contact with each other."

Mynas were originally introduced in Australia in the 1800s to control insect populations feeding on local crops. The birds quickly established themselves and radiated throughout the south-east coasts of Australia. Now, they are considered an aggressive pest that could have potentially devastating effects on biodiversity as they increase competition for food and nesting sites.  

"Mynas are known to impact native birds by driving them away from nesting sites, but my work suggests they are also exposing our natives to new diseases," Clark added. "I believe we as a society, have under estimated the threat they can cause."

While avian malaria cannot be spread to people, Clark is making sure to investigate other invasive species and the non-native diseases they carry that could put humans at risk.

The study was recently published in the International Journal for Parasitology.

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