A malaria parasite was recently discovered in many white-tailed deer across North America, by accident. Malaria is not something one would think could be discovered by chance, but researchers Ellen Martinsen, Rob Fleischer and more of their colleagues proved that thought wrong.
The team of researchers were working in Washington D.C., at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s genetics center. The team was looking for the source of malaria parasites in birds, specifically at the National Zoo. Using a technolgy that makes DNA easier to study, known as the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), they ended up identifying the genetic signature of a different malaria parasite, one that was previously unknown in North America. The parasite is known as Plasmodium odocoilei, which yes, is hard to pronounce. The team was then luckily able to collect enough blood from the mosquito’s stomach to trace it back to the white-tailed deer.
The findings weren’t limited to one unfortunate deer either, the team tested over 300 deer across North America, and discovered the parasite in 41 of them. The team also tested other hoofed animals, such as elk and donkeys, but the deer seemed to be the only unfortunate animal to be infected.
The results of this accidental study are the mark of the first malaria species native to North America. David Hewitt, a researcher involved in the study, says ““This story suggests there is still much we don’t know about the natural world.” The findings suggest that malaria may have a large evolutionary history that we don’t fully understand. The evolution may even trace back to the ancestors of the white-tailed deer, who made their way to North America 5 million years ago.
The team plans to take this study further and look into whether the parasites have been causing any unknown illnesses in the deer so far. For Bambi’s sake, I hope they don’t find anything.
Here is a video that further explains the topic: