Description and molecular characterization of a new Leucocytozoon parasite (Haemosporida: Leucocytozoidae), Leucocytozoon californicus sp. nov., found in American kestrels (Falco sparverius sparverius)
Diurnal raptors in the order Accipitriformes are commonly parasitized with Leucocytozoon spp., and the prevalence and intensity of parasitemia are often high. However, for raptors in Falconiformes, several studies have reported relatively low prevalences (1 % or less) of Leucocytozoon spp. Leucocytozoon parasite pathogenicity has been documented in falcons, but little is known about the diversity, prevalence, and phylogenetic relationships among Leucocytozoon species in these predatory birds. The research reported here combines molecular and microscopic techniques to identify and describe Leucocytozoon parasites in Falco sparverius sparverius, the American kestrel, and place those parasites into a phylogenetic context with leucocytozoids previously found in other diurnal raptors (Accipitriformes), owls (Strigiformes), passerines (Passeriformes), and other bird species. Of 35 American kestrels sampled, 13 birds (37.1 %) were found by PCR to harbor the DNA lineage of a novel species, Leucocytozoon californicus. No other Leucocytozoon parasite lineages were identified in our sample. Phylogenetic analysis revealed that this parasite clusters more closely with leucocytozoids found in owls and passerines than it does with leucocytozoids found in birds of the genera Buteo and Accipiter of the order Accipitriformes. This is the first described species of Leucocytozoon that parasitizes diurnal raptors in which gametocytes develop exclusively in roundish host blood cells. It is also the first Leucocytozoon species that is described and named in birds of the Falconiformes, in which, for unclear reasons, leucocytozoids are significantly less prevalent and less diverse than in raptors with a similar behavioral ecology belonging to the Accipitriformes.