Malaria parasites in the genus Plasmodium are now placed within 11 subgenera based on morphology under the light microscope, life-history traits, and host taxon. The phylogenetic significance of these characters, however, is problematic because the observed variation could be homoplasious. Using Plasmodium infections found in 2632 birds of many avian families collected in the USA, and several samples from other locations, we compared identifications to subgenus based on morphology in blood smears with a 2-gene molecular phylogeny (the first for avian Plasmodium) to determine if the 5 avian Plasmodium subgenera represent monophyletic groups. Phylogenetic trees recovered by parsimony, likelihood, and Bayesian methods presented nearly identical topologies. The analysis allowed testing the hypothesis of monophyly for the subgenera. Monophyly of the subgenera Haemamoeba, Huffia, and Bennettinia was supported by the analysis. The distinctive morphology of Haemamoeba species appears to have evolved once. Most samples identified to Novyella also fell within a monophyletic clade with the exception of 2 samples that fell basal to all other avian Plasmodium. Samples of the subgenus Giovannolaia did not form a monophyletic group. Thus, the characters used by parasitologists for over a century to define subgenera of Plasmodium vary in their phylogenetic significance.
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