Background: New World vultures (Cathartiformes: Cathartidae) are obligate scavengers comprised of seven species in five genera throughout the Americas. Of these, turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) and black vultures (Coragyps atratus) are the most widespread and, although ecologically similar, have evolved differences in morphology, physiology, and behaviour. Three species of haemosporidians have been reported in New World vultures to date: Haemoproteus catharti, Leucocytozoon toddi and Plasmodium elongatum, although few studies have investigated haemosporidian parasites in this important group of species. In this study, morphological and molecular methods were used to investigate the epidemiology and molecular biology of haemosporidian parasites of New World vultures in North America. Methods: Blood and/or tissue samples were obtained from 162 turkey vultures and 95 black vultures in six states of the USA. Parasites were identified based on their morphology in blood smears, and sequences of the mitochondrial cytochrome b and nuclear adenylosuccinate lyase genes were obtained for molecular characterization. Results: No parasites were detected in black vultures, whereas 24% of turkey vultures across all sampling locations were positive for H. catharti by blood smear analysis and/or PCR testing. The phylogenetic analysis of cytochrome b gene sequences revealed that H. catharti is closely related to MYCAMH1, a yet unidentified haemosporidian from wood storks (Mycteria americana) in southeastern USA and northern Brazil. Haemoproteus catharti and MYCAMH1 represent a clade that is unmistakably separate from all other Haemoproteus spp., being most closely related to Haemocystidium spp. from reptiles and to Plasmodium spp. from birds and reptiles. Conclusions: Haemoproteus catharti is a widely-distributed parasite of turkey vultures in North America that is evolutionarily distinct from other haemosporidian parasites. These results reveal that the genetic diversity and evolutionary relationships of avian haemosporidians are still being uncovered, and future studies combining a comprehensive evaluation of morphological and life cycle characteristics with the analysis of multiple nuclear and mitochondrial genes will be useful to redefine the genus boundaries of these parasites and to re-evaluate the relationships amongst haemosporidians of birds, reptiles and mammals.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Infectious Diseases