Part 2: Birds, BEES, and Bloodsuckers

[color-box color=”blue”]Welcome to Part 2 of Birds, BEES, and Bloodsuckers!

Below, and in our next three Monday posts, discover why our Ornithology Department is now the second largest university-based bird collection in the world, read about Jason Weckstein‘s mission to help provide students with more hands-on research opportunities, find out why he started collecting the parasites along with his bird specimens, and learn what a day collecting birds in the Brazilian Amazon Basin looks like. For part one, click here.[/color-box]

The Birds: The Irreplaceable Collections

The Academy’s 2011 affiliation with Drexel University has already raised the stature of our Ornithology Collection, which is now the second largest university-based bird collection in the world. In some cases, collections like ours contain the only existing historical data for scientists studying evolutionary history. Weckstein will use data from our Ornithology Collection to reconstruct the family histories of birds and their parasites and trace species diversity across time and geography.

Ruddy spinetail
Ruddy spinetail by Jason D. Weckstein

Our collections also hold information that is crucial to conservation efforts. In areas like southern Amazonian Brazil where Jason Weckstein does research, habitat destruction is threatening geographically isolated areas with species that may be found nowhere else on Earth. He and his colleagues have been racing to collect bird and associated parasite specimens before it is too late. The hope is that data collected for the Amazonian bird and parasite project will help conservationists prioritize areas important for conservation. Also, by creating a unique historical record, Weckstein, his colleagues, and future researchers can answer questions about population genetics, evolutionary history, or other fields we cannot yet even imagine.

Micrastur mintoni
Micrastur mintoni

Weckstein is using the Academy’s collections for his current research on Neotropical migrant birds and their parasites and emerging pathogens. He is interested in whether and why some parasites move between hosts throughout their lifetimes and others do not—questions that become even more interesting when we consider conditions such as Lyme disease, in which a human can become a host. The more we know about parasites and their relationships with their hosts, he says, the better prepared we are to understand how parasite diversity is generated and maintained and how diseases travel between birds, parasites, and humans.

The black-legged deer tick, for example, can travel on migrant birds, potentially infecting those animals with the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. Weckstein’s research group will test thousands of tissue samples collected during the preparation of museum specimens of migratory birds for this bacterium to assess whether birds may be an important vector for the disease. Studying patterns in parasite transmission and evolution is helping scientists trace similar patterns in the evolution of pathogens such as malaria and Ebola.

This article by Mary Alice Hartsock originally appeared in the Winter 2015 edition of Academy Frontiers.

[color-box color=”blue”]Update: For part 1, click here.[/color-box]

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