ABSTRACT

The life cycle of Sarcocystis species is heteroxenous (2-host), with carnivores being the definitive host and herbivores serving as intermediate hosts in predator–prey relationships. Raptors (eagles, hawks, falcons, and owls) are apex predators and are not consumed routinely by other carnivores, making the occurrence of sarcocysts in their muscles unusual. Recent reports of sarcocysts in eagles and owls with Sarcocystis encephalitis suggests that this condition may be becoming more frequent, and Sarcocystis falcatula has been implicated as the agent of encephalitis in golden (Aquila chrysaetos) and bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) as well as great horned owls (Bubo virginianus). The present study was done to determine the prevalence of sarcocysts of Sarcocystis species in the muscles of raptors from the southeastern United States. Pectoral and heart muscle from 204 raptor patients from the Carolina Raptor Center, Huntersville, North Carolina were tested for the presence of Sarcocystis species using histology. Only a few sarcocysts were seen in sections of pectoral muscle from 39 of 204 raptors (19.1%) and heart muscle from 9 that also had sarcocysts in their pectoral muscle. Two structural types of sarcocysts, thin-walled (1 μm; 62%) or thick-walled (>2 μm, 38%), were seen. Statistical analysis of raptor age and gender was done by Fisher's exact test on samples from raptors with 20 or more samples per group. The prevalence of sarcocysts by age (2 yr or more) was significant for red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) (P = 0.022) and Cooper's hawks (Accipiter cooperii) (P = 0.028). Sarcocyst prevalence in male raptors from these groups evaluated statistically were always less than in females. Prevalence in female red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) (42.1%) was significantly greater than in males (6.7%) using Fisher's exact test (P = 0.047). Examination of case histories from the 39 sarcocyst-positive raptors did not reveal an association with sarcocysts in raptor pectoral or heart muscle and in a diagnosis of encephalitis. Additional studies are needed to determine the epidemiology and relationships of Sarcocystis spp. that use raptors as intermediate hosts and the importance of Sarcocystis spp. in the overall wellbeing of raptors in their natural environments.

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