Brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) harbor Sarcocystis neurona and act as intermediate hosts

L. S. Mansfield, S. Mehler, K. Nelson, H. M. Elsheikha, A. J. Murphy, B. Knust, S. M. Tanhauser, P. M. Gearhart, M. G. Rossano, D. D. Bowman, H. C. Schott, J. S. Patterson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Scopus citations


We tested the hypothesis that brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) harbor Sarcocystis neurona, the agent of equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM), and act as intermediate hosts for this parasite. In summer 1999, wild caught brown-headed cowbirds were collected and necropsied to determine infection rate with Sarcocystis spp. by macroscopic inspection. Seven of 381 (1.8%) birds had grossly visible sarcocysts in leg muscles with none in breast muscles. Histopathology revealed two classes of sarcocysts in leg muscles, thin-walled and thick-walled suggesting two species. Electron microscopy showed that thick-walled cysts had characteristics of S. falcatula and thin-walled cysts had characteristics of S. neurona. Thereafter, several experiments were conducted to confirm that cowbirds had viable S. neurona that could be transmitted to an intermediate host and cause disease. Specific-pathogen-free opossums fed cowbird leg muscle that was enriched for muscle either with or without visible sarcocysts all shed high numbers of sporocysts by 4 weeks after infection, while the control opossum fed cowbird breast muscle was negative. These sporocysts were apparently of two size classes, 11.4 ± 0.7 μm by 7.6 ± 0.4 μm (n = 25) and 12.6 ± 0.6 μm by 8.0 ± 0 μm (n = 25). When these sporocysts were excysted and introduced into equine dermal cell tissue culture, schizogony occurred, most merozoites survived and replicated long term and merozoites sampled from the cultures with long-term growth were indistinguishable from known S. neurona isolates. A cowbird Sarcocystis isolate, Michigan Cowbird 1 (MICB1), derived from thin-walled sarcocysts from cowbirds that was passaged in SPF opossums and tissue culture went on to produce neurological disease in IFNγ knockout mice indistinguishable from that of the positive control inoculated with S. neurona. This, together with the knowledge that S. falcatula does not cause lesions in IFNγ knockout mice, showed that cowbird leg muscles had a Sarcocystis that fulfills the first aim of Koch's postulates to produce disease similar to S. neurona. Two molecular assays provided further support that both S. neurona and S. falcatula were present in cowbird leg muscles. In a blinded study, PCR-RFLP of RAPD-derived DNA designed to discriminate between S. neurona and S. falcatula showed that fresh sporocysts from the opossum feeding trial had both Sarcocystis species. Visible, thick-walled sarcocysts from cowbird leg muscle were positive for S. falcatula but not S. neurona; thin-walled sarcocysts typed as S. neurona. In 1999, DNA was extracted from leg muscles of 100 wild caught cowbirds and subjected to a PCR targeting an S. neurona specific sequence of the small subunit ribosomal RNA (SSU rRNA) gene. In control spiking experiments, this assay detected DNA from 10 S. neurona merozoites in 0.5 g of muscle. In the 1999 experiment, 23 of 79 (29.1%) individual cowbird leg muscle samples were positive by this S. neurona-specific PCR. Finally, in June of 2000, 265 cowbird leg muscle samples were tested by histopathology for the presence of thick- and thin-walled sarcocysts. Seven percent (18/265) had only thick-walled sarcocysts, 0.8% (2/265) had only thin-walled sarcocysts and 1.9% (5/265) had both. The other half of these leg muscles when tested by PCR-RFLP of RAPD-derived DNA and SSU rRNA PCR showed a good correlation with histopathological results and the two molecular typing methods concurred; 9.8% (26/265) of cowbirds had sarcocysts in muscle, 7.9% (21/265) had S. falcatula sarcocysts, 1.1% (3/265) had S. neurona sarcocysts, and 0.8% (2/265) had both. These results show that some cowbirds have S. neurona as well as S. falcatula in their leg muscles and can act as intermediate hosts for both parasites.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)24-43
Number of pages20
JournalVeterinary Parasitology
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - May 6 2008

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors would like to thank Kate Baird and Charles Baird for donating horses and opossums with S. neurona and for their untiring enthusiasm and efforts to help provide wildlife for the project. We thank Dr. J. Carl Fox of Oklahoma State University for the kind gift of a sample of bovine Sarcocystis. We would like to thank Sally Burns for her expertise in electron microscopy and David Gauthier for his expertise in animal handling. Also, we thank Dr. John Fyfe for review and critique of the manuscript. This work was supported by an Animal Health Initiative Grant from USDA and distributed through the State of Michigan (71-9419) and a grant from the Michigan State University Intellectual Property Office (71-4668).


  • Brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater)
  • Equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM)
  • Intermediate host
  • Life cycle
  • Opossum (Didelphis virginiana)
  • Sarcocystis neurona

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Parasitology
  • Veterinary (all)


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