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J Wildl Dis. 1988 Oct;24(4):610-9.

Plasmodium relictum as a cause of avian malaria in wild-caught magellanic penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus).

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  • 1Department of Veterinary Pathology, College of Veterinary Medicine, Iowa State University, Ames 50011.


Avian malaria (Plasmodium relictum) caused significant mortality in wild-caught Magellanic penguins (Spheniscus magellanicus) in 1986 at the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, Iowa (USA). In early winter, wild birds were captured off the southern coast of Chile and flown to Detroit, Michigan for a 38 day quarantine. After quarantine, 18 birds were dispersed to Lansing, Michigan, six to a facility in Maine, and 46 to Des Moines, Iowa. Upon arrival in Des Moines, several penguins became weak and inactive, had to be force-fed, and died after 2 days. Gross lesions at postmortem included splenomegaly, hepatomegaly, and pulmonary edema. Histopathological examination revealed numerous intraendothelial schizonts in spleen, lung, liver, heart and kidney. Schizonts were generally 16 to 28 micron by 11 to 16 micron and contained merozoites of two distinct sized (macromerozoites, nuclei 1.0 micron; micromerozoites, nuclei 0.5 micron). Based on the morphology of the abundant exoerythrocytic forms, a tentative diagnosis of avian malaria (Plasmodium sp.) was made. Subsequent transmission electron microscopic examination of schizonts in formalized tissue revealed merozoites with tear-shaped rhoptries. Antimalarial therapy was initiated early but deaths continued for 5 mo. Mortality, which eventually totaled 83%, occurred in three distinct waves, each separated by a hiatus of approximately 1 mo. Despite examinations of repeated blood smears, intraerythrocytic Plasmodium relictum was not detected until late in the outbreak. Diagnosis was based on morphologic characteristics including schizonts with eight to 12 merozoites/segmenter and round gametocytes that displaced and turned the infected erythrocyte nucleus. In addition to malaria, penguins showed evidence of aspergillosis, bacterial enteritis (Escherichia coli; Proteus sp.; and Edwardsiella sp.), and helminthiasis (Contracaecum sp. and Tetrabothrius sp.). Based on gross and histological lesions, disease prevalence in this group of penguins was malaria 58%, aspergillosis 61%, enteritis 60%, helminthiasis 26%. Epidemiologic investigation including group transport history, disease prevalence in co-quarantined birds not sent to Des Moines and climatological data implicated Des Moines as the likely site for initial exposure, although information is not conclusive. Stress and concurrent disease certainly contributed to the severe mortality in this group of penguins infected with P. relictum.

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