Malaria found in local deer population

Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute researchers in Front Royal have discovered the malaria parasite in the local white-tailed deer population.

Ellen Martinsen, a postdoctoral researcher with the institute, said the parasite has been found in up to 25 percent of the white-tailed deer population on the East Coast.

“We stumbled across the malaria,” she said. “We weren’t looking for it.”

She was actually conducting a survey of bird malaria parasites when malaria was discovered in deer.

Malaria in deer had been documented in a single deer in Texas in the 1960s, “but it hadn’t been seen since,” she said.

She added white-tailed deer are one of the most studied vertebrate animals in the U.S. so the discovery came as a shock to everyone.

“We’ve been looking extensively for blood parasites,” she said about deer studies, but it wasn’t until recently that the malaria was discovered.

Bill McShea, an ecologist with the institute, caught 20 to 30 deer from Front Royal and sent blood samples to the pathology lab for testing, where the presence of malaria was confirmed.

McShea had been catching deer for 30 years and said, “I was as surprised as anybody to find it.”

In this region, he said that only about 1 in 20 deer have the malaria parasite.

He said that the malaria is not communicable, meaning it does not easily spread to other species. He added that local livestock haven’t been infected with malaria and it is not likely to happen.

He said that goats would be the most likely type of livestock to be at risk for being infected since they are the closet livestock relative to the deer.

At this time, he added that there are no symptoms associated with deer infected with the malaria parasite.

Martinsen said that the effects of the malaria are still unknown until further testing can be completed.

“Because we didn’t know about this, there haven’t been any studies on the effects on individuals or populations of deer,” she said.

“It is highly unlikely that it will spread,” she added, “as it hasn’t been found in any other animal.”

The researchers tested close relatives to the white-tailed deer, including the mule deer, which is the closest relative, and no infection was found.

“This is not a threat to humans,” she added.

There are a number questions that have opened up to the researchers since the discovery of the parasite in local deer.

Martinsen said that the origin of these parasites in deer still remains unknown and also how it will impact deer population.

Contact staff writer Kaley Toy at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or