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The global biogeography of avian haemosporidian parasites is characterized by local diversification and intercontinental dispersal

  • Vincenzo A. Ellis (a1), Eloisa H. R. Sari (a1), Dustin R. Rubenstein (a2), Rebecca C. Dickerson (a3), Staffan Bensch (a1) and Robert E. Ricklefs (a4)...


The biogeographic histories of parasites and pathogens are infrequently compared with those of free-living species, including their hosts. Documenting the frequency with which parasites and pathogens disperse across geographic regions contributes to understanding not only their evolution, but also the likelihood that they may become emerging infectious diseases. Haemosporidian parasites of birds (parasite genera Plasmodium, Haemoproteus and Leucocytozoon) are globally distributed, dipteran-vectored parasites. To date, over 2000 avian haemosporidian lineages have been designated by molecular barcoding methods. To achieve their current distributions, some lineages must have dispersed long distances, often over water. Here we quantify such events using the global avian haemosporidian database MalAvi and additional records primarily from the Americas. We scored lineages as belonging to one or more global biogeographic regions based on infection records. Most lineages were restricted to a single region but some were globally distributed. We also used part of the cytochrome b gene to create genus-level parasite phylogenies and scored well-supported nodes as having descendant lineages in regional sympatry or allopatry. Descendant sister lineages of Plasmodium, Haemoproteus and Leucocytozoon were distributed in allopatry in 11, 16 and 15% of investigated nodes, respectively. Although a small but significant fraction of the molecular variance in cytochrome b of all three genera could be explained by biogeographic region, global parasite dispersal likely contributed to the majority of the unexplained variance. Our results suggest that avian haemosporidian parasites have faced few geographic barriers to dispersal over their evolutionary history.


Corresponding author

Author for correspondence: Vincenzo A. Ellis, E-mail:


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