Introducing the The Terrestrial Parasite Tracker Project (TPT)

Let’s take a break from talking about the spread of coronavirus and turn our attention to other important vectors of diseases. Parasitic arthropods inflict an enormous burden on human society.  They afflict humans and the animals on which we depend. Fleas transmitted bubonic plague, mosquitoes vector malaria and dengue, and ticks transmit the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Arthropods have vectored the parasites and pathogens that cause disease to hundreds of millions of people. Yet, this is not just the stuff of history, we are faced with similar issues today. In fact, vector borne diseases are increasing as the climate and ecosystems change. The Center for Disease Control (aka CDC) estimates “illnesses from mosquito, tick, and flea bites have tripled in the U.S., with more than 640,000 cases reported during the 13 years from 2004 through 2016.” Human movement, land use, and rapidly changing environments have contributed to both range expansion or distribution changes in many arthropod vector species and the recent surges in the diseases they transmit. Arthropod-borne pathogens can also have a significant impact on our livestock, which poses a serious threat to agriculture and food security globally. Our ability to understand and model the potential risk of parasites is hampered by a lack of baseline information.

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Data about parasitic arthropods are underrepresented among digitized specimens. This is because people tend to focus on charismatic animals (like big vertebrates). Although parasitism is one of the most common lifestyles on the planet, parasite data are not readily accessible. Parasite specimens exist, however, the collections can be difficult to find. Specimens of parasitic arthropods are often stored separately from invertebrate collections; they are kept in collections with their hosts, or in smaller collections held by specialist researchers around the country. These hidden collections tend to be data-rich collections that represent irreplaceable knowledge about past organismal habitats, distributions, and parasite-host associations.

The goal of the Terrestrial Parasite Tracker (TPT) project is to mobilize and digitally capture these parasite collections to help understand the host-associations, evolution, distribution, and the ecological interactions of these important vectors. These data will assist scientists, educators, land managers, and policy makers. We will focus on lice, fleas, ticks and mites, biting true bugs and biting flies. We have teamed up with 22 collections and institutions with the goal of digitizing over 1.2 million specimens over the next 3 years and we are excited to work with our Notes from Nature community to help make this project a success!

Check out our first expedition in the new TPT Project!

— Julie Allen University of Nevada, Reno

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