Haemosporidioses in wild Eurasian blackbirds (Turdus merula) and song thrushes (T. philomelos): an in situ hybridization study with emphasis on exo‑erythrocytic parasite burden
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Background: Passerine birds are frequently infected with diverse haemosporidian parasites. While infections are traditionally considered benign in wild birds, recent studies demonstrated mortalities of passerine species due to exoerythrocytic development of the parasites, which can damage organs in affected hosts. However, exo-erythrocytic development remains insufficiently investigated for most haemosporidian species and thus little is known about the virulence of tissue stages in wild passerine birds. The aim of the present study was to investigate natural haemosporidian infections in deceased Eurasian blackbirds (Turdus merula) and song thrushes (Turdus philomelos) and to determine parasite burden and associated histological effects. Methods: For molecular analysis, blood and tissue samples from 306 thrushes were screened for Plasmodium, Haemoproteus and Leucocytozoon parasites by nested PCR. For the detection of parasite stages in organ samples, tissue sections were subjected to chromogenic in situ hybridization (CISH) using genus- and species-specific probes targeting the rRNAs of parasites. Exo-erythrocytic parasite burden was semi-quantitatively assessed and histological lesions were evaluated in haematoxylin–eosin-stained sections. Results: By PCR, 179 of 277 Eurasian blackbirds and 15 of 29 song thrushes were positive for haemosporidians. Parasites of all three genera were detected, with Plasmodium matutinum LINN1 and Plasmodium vaughani SYAT05 showing the highest prevalence. CISH revealed significant differences in exo-erythrocytic parasite burden between lineages in Eurasian blackbirds, with P. matutinum LINN1 frequently causing high exo-erythrocytic parasite burdens in various organs that were associated with histological alterations. Song thrushes infected with P. matutinum LINN1 and birds infected with other haemosporidian lineages showed mostly low exo-erythrocytic parasite burdens. Two Eurasian blackbirds infected with Leucocytozoon sp. TUMER01 showed megalomeronts in various organs that were associated with inflammatory reactions and necroses.