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Ellen Martinsen
Ellen Martinsen

Many American Deer Have Malaria Parasites

Ellen Martinsen
Ellen Martinsen

Most Americans are aware of the relationship between deer and parasites—specifically the Lyme disease–carrying deer tick. But ticks aren’t the only creepy-crawlies infesting the animals. In a recent study published in Science Advances, researchers report finding malaria parasites in many American deer.

Although human malaria has been eradicated in many parts of the world, including North America, the disease is still a threat elsewhere. "Malaria is a top parasitic disease in humans and wildlife," study co-author Ellen Martinsen said in a press release. "It's important that we gain a better understanding of its diversity and distribution not just across humans but across other species too."

Ellen Martinsen (foreground), Joseph Schall (background). Image Credit: Joshua Brown

There are more than 100 species of Plasmodium (malaria parasite) species, but only five of those are any threat to humans. The other 95 find other hosts in birds, lizards, bats, rodents, monkeys, and, it seems, deer.

Martinsen had not set out to look at deer. The biologist had collected mosquitoes from the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park and was scanning their DNA in search of a bird-infecting malaria when she saw a parasite she didn’t recognize. More analysis revealed that the mosquito in question had been feeding on white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus)—and that the deer was infected.

This is not the first time Plasmodium has been found in white-tailed deer, but it is the first time it’s been taken seriously. In 1967, a malaria expert reported finding Plasmodium parasites in a single white-tailed deer in Texas. But he could only find one infected deer, and he had no additional proof. At the time, co-author Joseph Schall said in the press release, “malaria wasn't supposed to be in mammals in the New World. It was like the guy was reporting he saw Big Foot."

The nay-sayers may soon change their minds. Martinsen, Schall, and their colleagues collected 1978 mosquitoes (representing 27 species) from sites in Washington, D.C. and San Diego. They examined the mosquitoes’ stomach contents—that is, other animals’ blood—for parasites, sequencing the DNA of any Plasmodium they could find. They also looked at blood samples from nine of the zoos’ ungulates (members of the deer family).

The results were surprising for a number of reasons. First, they found a pretty high prevalence: up to 25 percent of white-tailed deer living in Virginia and West Virginia sites were infected. Deer tested in San Diego were free and clear of Plasmodium, as were the other ungulate species. The researchers also found that even the infected deer had very low levels of the parasites—so low that the actual disease did not seem to be affecting them. DNA tests revealed two separate but related types of Plasmodium, which suggests an evolutionary split shortly after deer first arrived in the New World 2.3 to 6 million years ago.

"You never know what you're going to find when you're out in nature—and you look," Martinsen continued in the press release. "It's a parasite that has been hidden in the most iconic game animal in the United States. I just stumbled across it."

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Courtesy of The National Aviary
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Animals
Watch This Live Stream to See Two Rare Penguin Chicks Hatch From Their Eggs
Courtesy of The National Aviary
Courtesy of The National Aviary

Bringing an African penguin chick into the world is an involved process, with both penguin parents taking turns incubating the egg. Now, over a month since they were laid, two penguin eggs at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania are ready to hatch. As Gizmodo reports, the baby birds will make their grand debut live for the world to see on the zoo's website.

The live stream follows couple Sidney and Bette in their nest, waiting for their young to emerge. The first egg was laid November 7 and is expected to hatch between December 14 and 18. The second, laid November 11, should hatch between December 18 and 22.

"We are thrilled to give the public this inside view of the arrival of these rare chicks," National Aviary executive director Cheryl Tracy said in a statement. "This is an important opportunity to raise awareness of a critically endangered species that is in rapid decline in the wild, and to learn about the work that the National Aviary is doing to care for and propagate African penguins."

African penguins are endangered, with less than 25,000 pairs left in the wild today. The National Aviary, the only independent indoor nonprofit aviary in the U.S., works to conserve threatened populations and raise awareness of them with bird breeding programs and educational campaigns.

After Sidney and Bette's new chicks are born, they will care for them in the nest for their first three weeks of life. The two penguins are parenting pros at this point: The monogamous couple has already hatched and raised three sets of chicks together.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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holidays
Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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iStock

Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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