Primary peak and chronic malaria infection levels are correlated in experimentally infected great reed warblers.
ABSTRACT SUMMARY Malaria parasites often manage to maintain an infection for several months or years in their vertebrate hosts. In humans, rodents and birds, most of the fitness costs associated with malaria infections are in the short initial primary (high parasitaemia) phase of the infection, whereas the chronic phase (low parasitaemia) is more benign to the host. In wild birds, malaria parasites have mainly been studied during the chronic phase of the infection. This is because the initial primary phase of infection is short in duration and infected birds with severe disease symptoms tend to hide in sheltered places and are thus rarely caught and sampled. We therefore wanted to investigate the relationship between the parasitaemia during the primary and chronic phases of the infection using an experimental infection approach. We found a significant positive correlation between parasitaemia in the primary peak and the subsequent chronic phase of infection when we experimentally infected great reed warblers (Acrocephalus arundinaceus) with Plasmodium ashfordi. The reason for this association remains to be understood, but might arise from individual variation in exoerythrocytic parasite reservoirs in hosts, parasite antigenic diversity and/or host genetics. Our results suggest that the chronic phase parasitaemia can be used to qualitatively infer the parasitaemia of the preceding and more severe primary phase, which is a very important finding for studies of avian malaria in wild populations.