60-Second Science

Bird Malaria Moves North

Seven percent of 700 birds tested in Anchorage and Fairbanks were infected with avian malaria. Christopher Intagliata reports

Malaria is a tropical disease, right? Actually, malaria parasites can be found as far north as Alaska—at least in birds. And a warming climate may push avian malaria even farther north by the end of the century, according to a study in the journal PLoS ONE. [Claire Loiseau et al., First Evidence and Predictions of Plasmodium Transmission in Alaska Bird Populations]

Researchers took blood from nearly 700 birds around Anchorage, Fairbanks and a truck stop called Coldfoot, Alaska, above the Arctic Circle at 67 degrees north latitude. And they found the parasite in 7 percent of the birds at the two southerly sites. Some were migrants, and may have picked up the disease down south. But others were hatchlings and resident birds—indicating the parasite can complete its full life cycle in the Great White North.

The parasite doesn't seem to have hopped north of Fairbanks yet. But temperatures in the Arctic are rising at twice the global average, and researchers say malaria could cross into the Arctic Circle by 2080. Once it gets there, it could attack species like snowy owls, which have never been exposed to malaria, and may not have resistance to the disease. Talk about a buzzkill.

—Christopher Intagliata

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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