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Parasit Vectors. 2013 May 7;6:139. doi: 10.1186/1756-3305-6-139.

Altitudinal variation in haemosporidian parasite distribution in great tit populations.

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Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Lausanne, CH-1015 Lausanne, Switzerland.



One of the major issues concerning disease ecology and conservation is knowledge of the factors that influence the distribution of parasites and consequently disease outbreaks. This study aimed to investigate avian haemosporidian composition and the distribution of these parasites in three altitudinally separated great tit (Parus major) populations in western Switzerland over a three-year period. The objectives were to determine the lineage diversity of parasites occuring across the study populations and to investigate whether altitudinal gradients govern the distribution of haemosporidian parasites by lineage.


In this study molecular approaches (PCR and sequencing) were used to detect avian blood parasites (Plasmodium sp., Haemoproteus sp. and Leucocytozoon sp.) in populations of adult great tits caught on their nests during three consecutive breeding seasons.


High levels of parasite prevalence (88-96%) were found across all of the study populations with no significant altitude effect. Altitude did, however, govern the distribution of parasites belonging to different genera, with Plasmodium parasites being more prevalent at lower altitudes, Leucocytozoon parasites more at high altitude and Haemoproteus parasite prevalence increasing with altitude. A total of 27 haemosporidian parasite lineages were recorded across all study sites, with diversity showing a positive correlation to altitude. Parasites belonging to lineage SGS1 (P. relictum) and PARUS4 and PARUS19 (Leucocytozoon sp.) dominated lower altitudes. SW2 (P. polare) was the second most prevalent lineage of parasite detected overall and these parasites were responsible for 68% of infections at intermediate altitude, but were only documented at this one study site.


Avian haemosporidian parasites are not homogeneously distributed across host populations, but differ by altitude. This difference is most probably brought about by environmental factors influencing vector prevalence and distribution. The high occurrence of co-infection by different genera of parasites might have pronounced effects on host fitness and should consequently be investigated more rigorously.

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