Help Study Parasite Biodiversity from Home

If you are sitting at home watching wildlife from your kitchen window, you are witnessing several levels of biodiversity that cannot be seen through binoculars. Birds and mammals are hosts to many different parasites that live amongst their fur and feathers such as: lice, fleas, flies, ticks and mites. Most of these parasites are restricted to a single host, but some of these parasitic arthropods can vector pathogens that affect humans (for example, prairie dog fleas transmit the pathogen that causes plague). Yet, data about parasitic arthropods are underrepresented among digitized museum specimens, which makes them hard to find and study. To solve this void, 22 museums and institutions in North America have teamed up to digitize data for over 1.2 million parasite specimens in the next three years, including Dr. Sarah Bush, in the School of Biological Sciences.

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“We have a collection with over 80,000 parasites from around the world,” Bush says.  “There are slides from extinct birds, new species, and new genera hidden in our collection, we just need help determining what we have.”  To digitize specimens, Bush and colleagues have turned to a citizen science platform called Notes from Nature, where anyone, anywhere can go online and help transcribe data from historic microscope slides.  “Our goal is to better understand the distribution and evolution of parasite diversity” explains Bush.  “By digitizing data from existing specimens, we are hoping to understand where these parasites occur? What hosts these parasites infest? Which parasites are most likely to vector pathogens to humans, and whether their distribution has changed over time?”

Citizen scientists involved in this project get to peek through the parasite collection.  “You never know what you’re going to find”, says Bush, “the slides you see may be new species of parasites from your backyard, or they might be a parasite collected 100+ years ago in the far reaches of New Guinea.”  We may be stuck at home, but this is a way to explore new levels of biodiversity that can be shared and studied by new generations of biologists.

If you are interested in helping with this citizen science project visit the “Terrestrial Parasite Tracker” project on the Notes from Nature website.

— The Terrestrial Parasite Tracker Team

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