Parasite prevalence and diversity are determined by the distribution of hosts and vectors and by the interplay among a suite of environmental factors. Distributions of parasite lineages vary based on host susceptibility and geographical barriers. Hemoparasites of the genera Haemoproteus and Plasmodium have wide distributions, and high prevalence and genetic diversity within perching birds (Order Passeriformes). The rufous-collared sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis) is widely distributed in Central and South America across an immense diversity of environments from sea level to more than 4000 meters above sea level. It therefore provides an excellent model to investigate whether altitudinal and latitudinal gradients influence the distribution, prevalence and diversity of haemosporidian parasites, their population structure and the biogeographical boundaries of distinct parasite lineages.
We assembled samples from 1317 rufous-collared sparrows spanning 75 locales from across Central and South America (between 9.5°N and 54°S; 10–4655 meters above sea level). We used DNA sequence data from a fragment of the mitochondrial cytochrome b gene (cytb) of Haemoproteus and Plasmodium from 325 positive samples and found prevalences of 22 and 3%, respectively. Haemoproteus exhibited a higher prevalence than Plasmodium but with comparatively lower genetic diversity. We detected a relationship of Plasmodium and Haemoproteus prevalence with altitude and latitude; however, altitude and latitude did not influence parasite diversity.
Parasite lineages showed a phylogeographical boundary coincident with the Andes Mountains, although we also observed a north-south disjunction in Peru for Haemoproteus. Haemosporidian distribution was not homogeneous but differed based on latitude and altitude. This is most probably due to environmental factors that have influenced both vector distribution and abundance, as well as parasite development. Our study provides key insights on the distribution of haemoparasite lineages and parasite dynamics within hosts.
Financed by the National Centre for Research and Development under grant No. SP/I/1/77065/10 by the strategic scientific research and experimental development program:
SYNAT - “Interdisciplinary System for Interactive Scientific and Scientific-Technical Information”.