Severe malarial anaemia (SMA) is the most common life-threatening complication of Plasmodium falciparum infection in African children. SMA is characterised by haemolysis and inadequate erythropoiesis, and is associated with dysregulated inflammatory responses and reduced complement regulatory protein levels (including CD35). However, a deeper mechanistic understanding of the pathogenesis requires improved animal models. In this comparative study of two closely related macaque species, we interrogated potential causal factors for their differential and temporal relationships to onset of SMA. We found that rhesus macaques inoculated with blood-stage Plasmodium coatneyi developed SMA within 2 weeks, with no other severe outcomes, whereas infected cynomolgus macaques experienced only mild/ moderate anaemia. The abrupt drop in haematocrit in rhesus was accompanied by consumption of haptoglobin (haemolysis) and poor reticulocyte production. Rhesus developed a greater inflammatory response than cynomolgus macaques, and had lower baseline levels of CD35 on red blood cells (RBCs) leading to a significant reduction in the proportion of CD35+ RBCs during infection. Overall, severe anaemia in rhesus macaques infected with P. coatneyi has similar features to SMA in children. Our comparisons are consistent with an association of low baseline CD35 levels on RBCs and of early inflammatory responses with the pathogenesis of SMA.