In 2014, while collecting mosquitoes, Ellen Martinsen, a research associate at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, discovered the only malaria parasite to be found in deer. The parasite, Plasmodium odocoilei, is also the only malaria parasite native to North and South America.
Martinsen et al, in a study published Feb. 5, 2016 in Science Advances, estimate that up to twenty five percent of white-tailed deer along the United States of America East Coast are infected by Plasmodium odocoilei.
White-tailed deer. or Odocoileus virginianus, is the most widely distributed ungulate (hoofed mammal) in North and South America.
Other ungulates that were tested include, horses, goats, donkeys and cows. None of these exhibited signs of having the parasite.
"It's a parasite that has been hidden in the most iconic game animal in the United States. I just stumbled across it," explained Martinsen.
Because the parasite has presumably been in American mosquitoes for years undetected, it is unlikely that much danger is present with Plasmodium odocoilei.
With diseases such as Ebola, Chikunguya. and Zika recently making front page news, however, interest in disease and mosquitoes has plumed in the recent years.
"There's a sudden surge in interest in mosquito biology across the United States. This is a reminder of the importance of parasite surveys and basic natural history," said UVM biologist and malaria expert, Joseph Schall, who helped Martinsen with the study.
According to Schall, this is not the first time malaria has been found in deer. In 1967, a malaria researcher claimed to have found malaria in a deer in Texas but was disbelieved.