Migratory birds as vehicles for parasite dispersal? Infection by avian haemosporidians over the year and throughout the range of a long-distance migrant

TitleMigratory birds as vehicles for parasite dispersal? Infection by avian haemosporidians over the year and throughout the range of a long-distance migrant
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2019
AuthorsPulgarín-R, PC, Gómez, C, Bayly, NJ, Bensch, S, FitzGerald, AM, Starkloff, N, Kirchman, JJ, González-Prieto, AM, Hobson, KA, Ungvari-Martin, J, Skeen, H, Castaño, MIsabel, Cadena, CDaniel
JournalJournal of Biogeography
KeywordsGrey‐cheeked thrush, Haemoproteus, Leucocytozoon, Migration, Plasmodium, stopover


The role of migratory birds in the spread of parasites is poorly known, in part because migratory strategies and behaviours potentially affecting transmission are not easy to study. We investigated the dynamics of infection by blood parasites through the annual cycle of a long‐distance Nearctic–Neotropical migratory songbird to examine the role of this species in dispersing parasites between continents.


The Americas.


Grey‐cheeked Thrush (Catharus minimus, Aves, Passeriformes, Turdidae), Birds.


We used molecular and microscopy screening of haemosporidian parasites (Plasmodium, Haemoproteus, and Leucocytozoon) to examine the prevalence, distribution, and diversity of lineages through the annual cycle (breeding, migration, and wintering) of the grey‐cheeked thrush in North and Central America, Santa Marta mountains, the Andes, and the Amazon. We aimed to identify transmission areas, to examine the degree of sharing of haemosporidian lineages with resident birds in various areas and to assess the potential role of immunologically naïve juvenile individuals in parasite transmission.


Prevalence and lineage diversity of haemosporidians varied significantly over time, being higher during breeding and fall and spring migration, and declining during wintering. Grey‐cheeked thrush shared few parasite lineages with tropical resident birds and slightly more lineages with other migratory and resident boreal species. We detected gametocytes in blood during spring migration stopover, but these were of lineages not found in resident tropical birds, indicating relapses of parasites transmitted elsewhere. Transmission likely occurs mostly on the breeding grounds, where juveniles and adults carried lineages restricted to closely related species of thrushes and other species of boreal birds.

Main conclusions

Long‐distance migratory songbirds are likely not important dispersers of blood parasites because there are ecological and evolutionary barriers to the interchange of parasites across vastly separated areas. Further work with thorough spatial and temporal sampling across other species, and considering the role of vectors, is necessary to understand the ecological and evolutionary factors explaining the distribution of parasites over broad scales.

Short TitleJ Biogeogr