Local host specialization, host-switching, and dispersal shape the regional distributions of avian haemosporidian parasites

Vincenzo A. Ellisa, Michael D. Collins, Matthew C. I. Medeiros, Eloisa H. R. Sari, Elyse D. Coffey, Rebecca C. Dickerson, Camile Lugarini, Jeffrey A. Stratford, Donata R. Henry, Loren Merrill, Alix E. Matthews, Alison A. Hanson, Jackson R. Roberts, Michael Joyce, Melanie R. Kunkel, Robert E. Ricklefs

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The drivers of regional parasite distributions are poorly understood, especially in comparison with those of free-living species. For vector-transmitted parasites, in particular, distributions might be influenced by host-switching and by parasite dispersal with primary hosts and vectors. We surveyed haemosporidian blood parasites (Plasmodium and Haemoproteus) of small land birds in eastern North America to characterize a regional parasite community. Distributions of parasite populations generally reflected distributions of their hosts across the region. However, when the interdependence between hosts and parasites was controlled statistically, local host assemblages were related to regional climatic gradients, but parasite assemblages were not. Moreover, because parasite assemblage similarity does not decrease with distance when controlling for host assemblages and climate, parasites evidently disperse readily within the distributions of their hosts. The degree of specialization on hosts varied in some parasite lineages over short periods and small geographic distances independently of the diversity of available hosts and potentially competing parasite lineages. Nonrandom spatial turnover was apparent in parasite lineages infecting one host species that was well-sampled within a single year across its range, plausibly reflecting localized adaptations of hosts and parasites. Overall, populations of avian hosts generally determine the geographic distributions of haemosporidian parasites. However, parasites are not dispersal-limited within their host distributions, and they may switch hosts readily.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)11294-11299
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number36
StatePublished - Sep 8 2015


  • INHS
  • Avian malaria
  • Haemosporida
  • Emerging infectious disease
  • Parasite communities
  • Community assembly

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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