Part 5: Birds, BEES, and Bloodsuckers

[color-box color=”blue”]Welcome to Part 5 of Birds, BEES, and Bloodsuckers!

Below, and in our series Birds, BEES, and Bloodsuckers, 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 the complete series, click here.[/color-box]

A Day in the Field

In 2015, Jason Weckstein will travel to the Brazilian Amazon Basin, the largest and most intact lowland tropical forest wilderness on the planet, to study the diversity of birds and their parasites as part of a National Science Foundation funded project. There, he and his collaborators will find plenty of birds and many undescribed hitchhiking parasites that he can add to the Academy’s collection and collaborating Brazilian collections.

4:30 a.m. Weckstein and his collaborators are awake and alert. They rise before the first note of the dawn chorus to search for nocturnal birds.

5 a.m. Part of the team heads out to the forest to open mist nets to catch birds. Other crew members begin to make sound recordings and visual observations and collect additional specimens.

Noon The team returns to camp to sample birds for parasites. First, the scientists photograph live birds, take blood samples, and make microscope slides to study blood parasites such as avian malarial parasites.

1–8 p.m. Scientists fumigate bird specimens with ethyl acetate to kill ectoparasites that live on the outsides of the birds. Then the scientists “ruffle” the birds’ feather tracts to remove the parasites, place the parasites in vials, and preserve or freeze them.

jason weckstein with other researchers in the field
Photo by Joshua I. Engel

Throughout the process, the team takes critical notes on the prevalence and intensity of the parasite infections, documenting how many hosts carry the parasites and the degree to which these hosts are infected. Then they swab the birds’ mouths for viruses and bacteria.

Because a bird’s soft parts, such as its eyes and internal organs, change when it dies, a preparator on the team takes notes to record the characteristics of the soft parts and adds the notes to a tag that will remain with the specimen for eternity. After collecting these data, the scientists take tissue samples, which they will later screen for pathogens and use for DNA work on the birds themselves.

This article by Mary Alice Hartsock was featured in the Winter 2015 edition of Academy Frontiers.

[color-box color=”blue”]Click here for the complete series![/color-box]

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