ABSTRACT

Birds harbor a diverse group of haemosporidian parasites that reproduce and develop in the host blood cells, muscle tissue, and various organs, which can cause negative effects on the survival and reproduction of their avian hosts. Characterization of the diversity, distribution, host specificity, prevalence patterns, and phylogenetic relationships of these parasites is critical to the study of avian host–parasite ecology and evolution and for understanding and preventing epidemics in wild bird populations. Here, we tested whether muscle and liver samples collected as part of standard ornithological museum expeditions can be examined to study the diversity and distributions of haemosporidians in the same way as blood collected from individual birds that are typically banded and released. We used a standard molecular diagnostic screening method for mitochondrial DNA (cytochrome b) of the parasites and found that blood, muscle, and liver collected from the same host individual provide similar estimates of prevalence and diversity of haemosporidians from the genera Parahaemoproteus and Leucocytozoon. Although we found higher prevalence for the genus Plasmodium when we screened blood vs. liver and muscle samples, the estimates of the diversity of Plasmodium from different tissue types are not affected at the community level. Given these results, we conclude that for several reasons existing museum genetic resources collections are valuable data sources for the study of haemosporidians. First, ornithological museum collections around the world house tens of thousands of vouchered tissue samples collected from remote regions of the world. Second, the host specimens are vouchered and thus host identification and phenotype are permanently documented in databased archives with a diversity of associated ancillary data. Thus, not only can identifications be confirmed but also a diversity of morphological measurements and data can be measured and accessed for these host specimens in perpetuity.

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