Parasites play significant roles in human health, wildlife biology, and agriculture, but for most parasites, researchers still lack an accurate picture of their distributions, host associations, or ecology. Museum specimens play a fundamental role in understanding parasite biology, yet specimens and associated data are often hidden away in vials and on microscope slides in research collections all over the country.

That is set to change soon, however, as The University of New Mexico joins Purdue University and 25 other institutions to lead the effort to modernize the world’s knowledge on arthropod parasites using a three-year, $4.3 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant. The Terrestrial Parasite Tracker project will mobilize data and images from more than 1.3 million arthropod specimens from research collections across the United States.

These specimens represent species such as ticks, which spread Lyme disease, fleas that spread plague, and mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus, malaria and other diseases.

Ryan Barber in the field
Ryan Barber (BS, 2014 UNM) participated in field surveys of ectoparasites (fleas and ticks) of wild mammals in Alaska and Canada. Those specimens and associated data will now be digitized and made available via the on-line Arctos database.

“This effort will mobile and organize data from ectoparasites of mammals that would otherwise be unavailable to the broader scientific and public health communities.” said Joseph Cook, Curator of Mammals at the Museum of Southwestern Biology.

Cook and Senior Collection Manager Mariel Campbell will lead the effort at UNM, which will digitize specimens collected from mammals from field expeditions throughout western North America, Beringia, Mongolia, and Latin America. The grant builds on a superb collection of endoparasites (third largest in North America) amassed over several decades both through remote field work and through two large private collections that were donated to the Museum of Southwestern Biology nearly a decade ago.

The data will be available through the Arctos database and combined with vector and disease-monitoring data from state and federal agencies, creating a portal for researchers to track past parasite distributions and their interactions with hosts in order to predict future changes. Specimen images will be used to develop automated tools for rapid parasite identification. The grant also will support public education programs, summer youth programs, teaching modules for undergraduate classes and other educational materials.

 “Data transcribed from specimen labels can be used to produce distribution maps that help provide a more complete picture of where organisms occurred over the last 100 or more years,” said Principal Investigator Jennifer Zaspel from the Milwaukee Public Museum. “This information can be linked with host records, allowing us to better understand the history of host-parasite relationships and how they may have changed over time due to climate, land use, global movement and other factors.”

With all of these data online, researchers will be able to easily access records for a given parasite and its hosts, accelerating the pace of our research and enhancing our ability to predict the future spread of arthropod-vectored pathogens, added Zaspel.

Kaylen Soudachanh in Parasite Lab
Kaylen (Jones) Soudachanh (MS, Museum Studies 2018) sorted and identified mammalian ectoparasites from field collections that are held in the Museum of Southwestern Biology. Images and related information about these specimens will now be made publicly available to assist public health agencies, biologists, educators and others who might investigate geographic distributions or host associations of these potential disease vectors.