Two years ago, Ellen Martinsen, was collecting mosquitoes at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, looking for malaria that might infect birds–when she discovered something strange: a DNA profile, from parasites in the mosquitoes, that she couldn’t identify.
By chance, she had discovered a malaria parasite, Plasmodium odocoilei–that infects white-tailed deer. It’s the first-ever malaria parasite known to live in a deer species and the only native malaria parasite found in any mammal in North or South America. Though white-tailed deer diseases have been heavily studied–scientist hadn’t noticed that many have malaria parasites.
Martinsen and her colleagues estimate that the parasite infects up to twenty-five percent of white-tailed deer along the East Coast of the United States. Their results were published February 5 in Science Advances.