Research Article

Wildlife disease and conservation in Hawaii: Pathogenicity of avian malaria (Plasmodium relictum) in experimentally infected Iiwi (Vestiaria coccinea)

C. T. Atkinsona1 p1, K. L. Woodsa1 p2, R. J. Duseka1 p1, L. S. Sileoa1 p2 and W. M. Ikoa1 p3

a1 National Biological Service, National Wildlife Health Center, Hawaii Volcanoes Field Station, P.O. Box 218, Hawaii National Park, HI 96718, USA


Native Hawaiian forest birds are facing a major extinction crisis with more than 75% of species recorded in historical times either extinct or endangered. Reasons for this catastrophe include habitat destruction, competition with non-native species, and introduction of predators and avian diseases. We tested susceptibility of Iiwi (Vestiaria coccinea), a declining native species, and Nutmeg Mannikins (Lonchura punctulata), a common non-native species, to an isolate of Plasmodium relictum from the island of Hawaii. Food consumption, weight, and parasitaemia were monitored in juvenile Iiwi that were infected by either single (low-dose) or multiple (high-dose) mosquito bites. Mortality in both groups was significantly higher than in uninfected controls, reaching 100% of high-dose birds and 90% of low-dose birds. Significant declines in food consumption and a corresponding loss of body weight occurred in malaria-infected birds. Both sex and body weight had significant effects on survival time, with males more susceptible than females and birds with low initial weights more susceptible than those with higher initial weights. Gross and microscopic lesions in malaria fatalities included massive enlargement of the spleen and liver, hyperplasia of the reticuloendothelial system with extensive deposition of malarial pigment, and overwhelming anaemia in which over 30% of the circulating erythrocytes were parasitized. Nutmeg Mannikins, by contrast, were completely refractory to infection. Our findings support previous studies documenting high susceptibility of native Hawaiian forest birds to avian malaria. This disease continues to threaten remaining high elevation populations of endangered native birds.


p1 Present address and address for reprints:: National Biological Service, Pacific Islands Science Center, P.O. Box 218, Hawaii National Park, Hawaii 96718.

p2 National Biological Service, National Wildlife Health Center, 6006 Schroeder Road, Madison, WI 53711.

p3 Present address: National Biological Service, Mid-continental Ecological Science Center, 4512 McMurry Ave., Fort Collins, Colorado 80525.