Hawaii's native birds have become increasingly threatened over the past century. Introduced mosquito borne diseases such as avian malaria may be responsible for the near absence of endemic Hawaiian forest birds in low-elevation habitats. The recent recognition that some native Hawaiian forest birds may be repopulating moist lowland habitats as a result of evolved resistance to this disease has increased the conservation value of these areas. Here, we investigate whether remnant low elevation dry forests on Hawaii Island provide natural 'refuges' from mosquito-transmitted malaria by nature of their low rainfall and absence of suitable natural sources of water for mosquito breeding. Unlike lowland wet forests where high rates of disease transmission may be selecting for disease resistance, lowland dry forests may provide some refuge for native forest birds without natural resistance to malaria. We mistnetted forest birds in two lowland dry forests and tested all native birds by microscopy and serology for avian malaria caused by the Plasmodium relictum parasite. We also conducted surveys for standing water and mosquito larvae. Overall prevalence of infections with Plasmodium relictum in the Hawaii Amakihi Hemignathus virens virens was 15%. Most infected birds had lowlevel parasitemias, suggesting chronic infections. Although avian malaria is present in these lowland dry forest Amakihi populations, infection rates are significantly lower than in wet forest populations at similar elevations. Sources of breeding mosquitoes in these forests appeared to be largely anthropogenic; thus, there is potential to manage dry forests as mosquito-free habitat for Hawaii Amakihi and other Hawaiian forest birds.
Additional publication details
Can lowland dry forests represent a refuge from avian malaria for native Hawaiian birds?