Open Access Open Badges Research article

Explaining variance of avian malaria infection in the wild: the importance of host density, habitat, individual life-history and oxidative stress

Caroline Isaksson12*, Irem Sepil1, Vladimer Baramidze1 and Ben C Sheldon1

Author affiliations

1 Department of Zoology, Edward Grey Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom

2 Current address: Evolutionary ecology group, Department of Biology, Lund University, Lund, Sweden

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Citation and License

BMC Ecology 2013, 13:15  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-13-15

Published: 8 April 2013



Avian malaria (Plasmodium sp.) is globally widespread, but considerable variation exists in infection (presence/absence) patterns at small spatial scales. This variation can be driven by variation in ecology, demography, and phenotypic characters, in particular those that influence the host’s resistance. Generation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) is one of the host’s initial immune responses to combat parasitic invasion. However, long-term ROS exposure can harm the host and the redox response therefore needs to be adjusted according to infection stage and host phenotype. Here we use experimental and correlational approaches to assess the relative importance of host density, habitat composition, individual level variation and redox physiology for Plasmodium infection in a wild population of great tits, Parus major.


We found that 36% of the great tit population was infected with Plasmodium (22% P. relictum and 15% P. circumflexum prevalence) and that patterns of infection were Plasmodium species-specific. First, the infection of P. circumflexum was significantly higher in areas with experimental increased host density, whereas variation in P. relictum infection was mainly attributed to age, sex and reproduction. Second, great tit antioxidant responses – total and oxidizied glutathione - showed age- , sex- and Plasmodium species-specific patterns between infected and uninfected individuals, but reactive oxygen metabolites (ROM) showed only a weak explanatory power for patterns of P. relictum infection. Instead ROM significantly increased with Plasmodium parasitaemia.


These results identify some key factors that influence Plasmodium infection in wild birds, and provide a potential explanation for the underlying physiological basis of recently documented negative effects of chronic avian malaria on survival and reproductive success.

Antioxidants; Glutathione; Host density; Hydroperoxides; Oxidative stress; Parus major; Plasmodium