Part 4: Birds, BEES, and Bloodsuckers

[color-box color=”blue”]Welcome to Part 4 of Birds, BEES, and Bloodsuckers!

Below, and in next Monday’s post, 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 parts one, two, and three, click here.[/color-box]

The Bloodsuckers (and Feather Feeders): Why Weckstein Collects Parasites

Ramphastos vitellinus ariel-
Ramphastos vitellinus ariel by John M. Bates

Years ago, as a PhD student in the Ornithology Department at Louisiana State University, Jason Weckstein was studying toucans—“the big-bodied Froot Loops guys”—as he fondly refers to them. While preparing toucan research study skins, he was delighted to find a bunch of chewing lice that had hitched a ride on these bird specimens from the tropics.

“I thought, ‘Hmm, I should save these in a vial, and maybe one day I’ll do something with them,’” he says.

Fast forward to 2015, and his career revolves around the evolutionary histories of birds and their parasites. As the lead principal investigator on a project funded by the National Science Foundation, he conducts collaborative biodiversity surveys to collect, preserve, and study avian parasites. The main focus of the project is parasites that are associated with birds that inhabit several geographically isolated areas of southern Amazonian Brazil.

Weckstein works closely with colleague Alexandre Aleixo, curator of birds at the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi in Belém, Brazil, to collect bird specimens for their collaborative research projects. Specimens collected during the project will add to both the Academy’s collections and to the Museu Goeldi collections. The project team, which also includes colleagues at the University of North Dakota and The Field Museum, will analyze genetic data for these birds and their parasites to reconstruct their evolutionary histories.

In fact, Weckstein sees parasites and their hosts as microcosms for studying evolutionary history. “The host acts as a habitat for the parasite,” he says. “As an evolutionary biologist, I see it as a simpler system than free-living organisms for understanding evolution.”

To understand the evolution of a free-living organism such as a bird, Weckstein collects information on how the surrounding environment shaped the bird’s development. This process involves gathering information on geology, climatic events, human interference, and a variety of other factors.

Myrsidea sp
Myrsidea sp

To understand the evolution of a parasite such as the chewing louse, he must simply collect the parasite with its avian host, and he can use reconstructions of the host’s evolutionary history from DNA data to help understand the evolutionary history of the parasite. The bird acts as the parasite’s habitat, and any additional data on the parasite’s environment comes directly from the bird. He can also screen the host’s blood, liver, and skin for evidence of viruses and bacteria deposited by the parasite.

Weckstein ultimately will deposit all of these data into publicly available databases and both the Academy’s collection and collaborating Brazilian collections such as the Museu Goeldi. There, both the specimens and their data will be perfectly preserved and available to future researchers.

This article by Mary Alice Hartsock appeared in the winter 2015 issue of Academy Frontiers

[color-box color=”blue”]For parts one, two, and three, click here.[/color-box]

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