Malaria parasites in white-tailed deer unlikely to affect humans

WASHINGTON — There’s a good chance the last white-tailed deer you saw crossing the road has malaria parasites, but that’s not something you need to worry about.

Scientists studying mosquitoes at the National Zoo have discovered a previously unknown species of the malaria parasite in white-tailed deer.

It’s the only native malaria parasite found in mammals in the Americas, and the first found in a deer species anywhere in the world.

“It was a lot of detective work, because at the beginning we didn’t know what the parasite host was,” says Ellen Martinsen, a research associate at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute based in Front Royal.

She’s also the lead author of a paper about the find published Feb. 5 in the journal Science Advances.

It’s estimated as many as one in four white-tailed deer on the East Coast carry this parasite, and that its history dates back millions of years.

“We don’t think that these parasites were introduced to the United States.  Instead, we think that these parasites likely came over the Bering Land Bridge, which connected the Old World to the Americas and came over in the ancestors of the white-tailed deer,” Martinsen says.

She says they’ve also uncovered a second previously-unknown species of malaria parasite that lives in white-tailed deer.

“Our study opened up a whole slew of new questions. One of them being, how does this impact deer populations?” Martinsen says.

She says more study is needed before that question can be answered.

But if you’re wondering if deer can spread malaria to other animals or people, Martinsen says, don’t be concerned.

“It’s very unlikely that … these malaria parasites will switch into other mammal species, and it’s very highly unlikely that they will switch into humans.”

Michelle Basch

Michelle Basch is a reporter and anchor at WTOP.

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