how did malaria evolve?
Malaria in humans probably evolved independently several times, and both times likely due to a cross-over event from a closely related primate malaria. For example, Plasmodium vivax is evolutionarily closely related to several species of malaria found in macaque monkeys in south-east Asia, and so a cross-over of one of those species into human, with subsequent adaptation and speciation, is one hypothesis as to the origin of P. vivax. Conversely, some people argue that P. vivax emerged in Africa, due to the high prevalence of certain genetic traits in African populations (such as the Duffy negative antigen), which protect against P. vivax.
In contrast, P. falciparum is agreed to have emerged in sub-Saharan Africa, and likely in the Congo basin, though the exact source of its origin has been under recent scientific dispute. Until 2010, it was thought that P. falciparum had crossed over to humans from chimpanzees, as chimps are known to be infected with P. reichenowi, a species very closely related to P. falciparum. However, a paper was published in 2010 which had sampled Plasmodium parasites of gorillas and revealed new species of Plasmodium which are even more closely related to P. falciparum, suggesting that the cross-over occurred from gorillas to humans.
As you can see, humans are not the only primates to get malaria; many species of monkey and ape are also susceptible to Plasmodium species, and even lemurs have their own suite of Plasmodium parasites. Among the mammals, rodents also can get malaria, and bats are infected with Hepatocystis, a malaria-like parasite which also infects hippos, primates and rodents. However, no other species of mammal appears to be susceptible to Plasmodium/Hepatocystis, and the reasons for this are not entirely clear.
Plasmodium probably crossed over to mammals from birds or lizards, both of which are infected with a vast number of species of Plasmodium. It is unclear in which of these groups Plasmodium first emerged, though it likely evolved originally from another type of blood-borne parasite called Leucocytozoon, which infects birds and uses blackflies (genus Simulium) as vectors.
A sister group to Plasmodium, called Haemoproteus, also evolved from Leucocytozoon but utilises a variety of different vectors, including mosquitoes, biting midges (Culicoides), louse flies (Hippoboscidae) and tabanids (Tabanidae). Plasmodium, by contrast, exclusively uses mosquitoes as its vectors (apart from one species of lizard Plasmodium, P. mexicanum, which uses sandflies), but while mammalian Plasmodium is only transmitted by Anopheles mosquitoes, bird and lizard Plasmodium can be transmitted by Culex, Aedes, Culiseta, Anopheles, Mansonia and Psorophora. As such, understanding the patterns of vector and host switches within Plasmodium and related taxa can actually provide interesting insights into the genus’ evolutionary history.