GAINESVILLE, Fla. — More than one in five fawns of white-tailed deer – the most economically important big-game mammal in the United States – can contract a malaria parasite, making fawns susceptible to diseases and death, new University of Florida research shows.
The study builds on research from the Smithsonian’s National Zoo published in 2016 that showed 25 percent of white-tailed deer are infected with a malaria parasite known as Plasmodium odocoilei. When scientists found this, they believed the parasite presented no health consequences for the infected animal.
In the new study, researchers found that seven of 33 – or 21 percent — of the fawns they tested of white-tailed deer at a deer farm in Gadsden County, Florida, caught malaria and that about half the infected fawns died. Deer farmers raise the game animal for trophy-hunting opportunities.
Deer get the malaria parasite from mosquitoes that carry it, said Samantha Wisely, an associate professor of wildlife ecology and conservation at the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. In the study, fawns that got the malaria parasite but had no other infection did not get sick, but fawns with the parasite were more likely to suffer and die from a virus called epizootic hemorrhagic disease virus, Wisely said. The authors conclude that the malaria parasite may make fawns more susceptible to illness caused by other diseases.
Little research has been done on malaria on North American hooved animals – such as the white-tailed deer, said Wisely, co-author of the new study.
But there is no reason to believe this malaria parasite can pass from deer to people, Wisely said.
Furthermore, wild deer populations are likely not in danger of declining due to the parasite because this malaria appears to be native to North America, and the animals have evolved with it, she said.
“Florida’s deer industry farmers, however, should manage for mosquitoes,” said Wisely, who conducted the research with Washington University-St. Louis doctors who study malaria in children. “Farmers should be vigilant about keeping pens dry and free of standing water, and use approved mosquito sprays, particularly during fawning season.”
Washington University researchers say they’re interested in deer malaria because they think that by understanding the deer malaria in fawns, they can better understand malaria in children. The new study’s finding suggests that medical researchers studying malaria might eventually be able to use deer as a model animal for investigating certain aspects of the disease progression, Wisely said.
About 700,000 white-tailed deer lived in Florida as of 2011, according to a UF/IFAS Extension document. Game hunters spent more than $50 billion on deer across the United States in 2011, and predators such as the Florida panther sometimes kill the white-tailed deer, UF/IFAS researchers say.
The new study is published in mSphere, a journal of the American Society for Microbiology.
By: Brad Buck, 352-294-3303, firstname.lastname@example.org
The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.