Parasites play significant roles in human health, wildlife conservation and livestock productivity. But getting an accurate picture of their distributions and associations with hosts is difficult because the specimens and their location data are often hidden away in vials and on microscope slides in research collections all over the country.

That will change, however, as the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology (UMMZ) Insect Division works to modernize the world’s knowledge on arthropod parasites using a three-year, $4.3 million National Science Foundation grant. The Terrestrial Parasite Tracker project will mobilize more than 1.3 million arthropod specimens representing species such as ticks, which spread Lyme disease, and mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus, malaria and other diseases.

Rows of many slides containing mites are stored in each slide box. The UMMZ insect collection has thousands of filled slide boxes.

“Typically people envision that we have all this knowledge in books or a spreadsheet at these facilities, but we’re not even at that point. We’re talking about handwritten cards on a shelf,” said Stephen Cameron, professor and head of Purdue’s Department of Entomology, home of the Purdue Entomological Research Collection. “We are now organizing data that would otherwise be unattainable to the broader scientific community.”

Dr. Erika Tucker, UMMZ insect collection manager and assistant research scientist, and Dr. Barry OConnor, UMMZ professor emeritus and curator emeritus, will collaborate with colleagues who manage 26 other research collections across the country. The data will be combined with vector and disease-monitoring data from state and federal agencies, creating a portal for researchers to track past parasite distributions and their interactions with hosts in order to predict future changes.

“Data transcribed from specimen labels can be used to produce distribution maps that help provide a more complete picture of where organisms occurred over the last 100 or more years. This information can be linked with host records, allowing us to better understand the history of host-parasite relationships and how they may have changed over time due to climate, land use, global movement and other factors.” Jennifer Zaspel, research curator and head of zoology at the Milwaukee Public Museum, said. “With all of this data online, we’ll be able to easily access records for a given parasite and its hosts, accelerating the pace of our research and enhancing our ability to predict the future spread of arthropod-vectored pathogens.”

Individual slide with mite specimen (mite is located in the center of the red ring). Many mites, which are only visible under a microscope, must be mounted on slides.

Specimen images will be used to develop automated tools for rapid parasite identification. The grant also will support public education programs, summer youth programs, teaching modules for undergraduate classes and other educational materials.

Tucker and OConnor will lead the digitization effort at U-M, implementing uniformity and standards that will ensure usability for research. The UMMZ insect collection contains about 300,000 slide-mounted specimens and approximately 70,000 vials of specimen lots, including the pre-1950s – 1980s Atyeo collection of bird parasites. At least 180,000 North American parasite specimens will be included in the project.   

Adapted by Erika Tucker from the Purdue University (project lead) press release

Background about a related Herbarium news series:

The University of Michigan Herbarium has been awarded nine National Science Foundation grants over the past seven years. Eight of the grants involve Thematic Collections Networks (TCN), which are collaborative projects administered by the Advancing Digitization of Biodiversity Collections (ADBC) project

Each TCN is a network of institutions with a strategy for digitizing information that addresses a particular research theme. Once digitized, data are easily accessed and available for other research and educational use. The nationwide effort is coordinated by the iDigBio program based at the University of Florida.

Since the first TCN project at the Herbarium (Tri-Trophic TCN) began in January 2012, over 650,000 specimens from the collection have been imaged as part of these projects.  Most of the images, either of the specimen labels or of the specimens themselves, are available online. Another aspect involves digitizing the data about the individual specimens and georeferencing localities.

Related articles previously in EEB web news:

Alumnus publishes about 3D scans of UMMZ bat skulls (this article references and links to Pteridophyte TCN and Endless Forms TCN)  

Digitizing the U-M Herbarium collections:   

Microfungi digitization project completed

Great Lakes Invasive species update  

Macroalgal update  

Macrofungi update  

Tri-trophic update  

Herbarium completes imaging and digitization of type collections

Two of six NSF awards to digitize biodiversity collections include U-M museums

Digitizing the U-M museums collections: Collections in support of biological research update