For the first time, we have discovered a diversity of malaria parasites (genus Plasmodium) in the Common Loon, a species long known to be malaria parasite free. Since 2010, we have been screening blood samples from live-caught loons by PCR and have discovered a growing number of infected individuals per year across the Northeast as well as a large diversity of malaria parasites in the species. In 2015, a breeding female Common Loon from Lake Umbagog in New Hampshire was found freshly dead. Upon necropsy and microscopy of tissues (histopathology), she was found to have died from malaria, with her body riddled with parasites including the brain, heart, and lungs. Since then we have discovered many more loons to have died from malaria during the breeding season. Through broad collaboration we have been working to better understand the deadliness of malaria parasite infection in Common Loons through necropsy, histopathology, and molecular identification of malaria parasite lineages.
This research is a huge team effort and includes loon biologists from across the country as well as wildlife veterinarians, wildlife rehabilitators, and veterinary pathologists. Collaborators include Inga Sidor at the NH Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, Mark Pokras at Tufts University, John Cooley at the Loon Preservation Committee, Lucas Savoy at the Biological Research Institute, Nina Schoch of the Adirondack Loon Center, Vincent Spagnuolo at the Ricketts Conservation Foundation, Eric Hanson at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, and Bren Lundborg at the Vermont Institute of Natural Sciences.
For more information on this project including our research team please visit our Experiment.com crowdfunding page: https://experiment.com/projects/understanding-malaria-emergence-in-common-loons