The introduction of avian malaria (Plasmodium relictum) to Hawaii has provided a model system for studying the influence of exotic disease on naive host populations. Little is known, however, about the origin or the genetic variation of Hawaii's malaria and traditional classification methods have confounded attempts to place the parasite within a global ecological and evolutionary context. Using fragments of the parasite mitochondrial gene cytochrome b and the nuclear gene dihydrofolate reductase-thymidylate synthase obtained from a global survey of greater than 13 000 avian samples, we show that Hawaii's avian malaria, which can cause high mortality and is a major limiting factor for many species of native passerines, represents just one of the numerous lineages composing the morphological parasite species. The single parasite lineage detected in Hawaii exhibits a broad host distribution worldwide and is dominant on several other remote oceanic islands, including Bermuda and Moorea, French Polynesia. The rarity of this lineage in the continental New World and the restriction of closely related lineages to the Old World suggest limitations to the transmission of reproductively isolated parasite groups within the morphological species. ?? 2006 The Royal Society.