Penn State entomologists join project to track historical parasite populations

September 06, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A multi-institutional effort to document and digitize the historical population dynamics of arthropod parasites will draw on Penn State entomological expertise and collections.

Supported by a $4.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation, the Terrestrial Parasite Tracker project is aimed at integrating and improving access to data representing more than 1.3 million specimens of species such as ticks, which spread Lyme disease and other pathogens, and mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus, malaria and other diseases.

"The population dynamics of arthropods that vector important pathogens change considerably over time, with phenomena such as climate change, shifts in land use, evolving management practices and so forth," said Andrew Deans, professor of entomology in the College of Agricultural Sciences and director of Penn State's Frost Entomological Museum.

"Natural history collections, which house millions of parasite specimens — each with relevant data such as locality, date of collection, and host organism — give us a foundation for understanding these dynamics," he said. "This is also an opportunity to make big discoveries regarding the basic biology of these parasites, especially for species that don't impact humans and livestock."

Led by researchers at Purdue University, the team will draw from 26 research collections across the United States and incorporate vector and disease-monitoring data from state and federal agencies to create a portal for researchers to track past parasite distributions and their interactions with hosts, with an eye toward predicting future changes.

This project will dovetail with current and past entomological research at Penn State, according to Joyce Sakamoto, assistant research professor of entomology. Sakamoto and colleagues recently published a study on the historical prevalence of ticks in Pennsylvania, based on more than a century's worth of data from public submissions and from specimens collected by Penn State scientists.

"Natural history collections like those held at the Frost Museum are potentially rich resources of historical data on the dynamics and presence of ectoparasites such as ticks," she said. "We can look back into the past to find associations between blood-feeding arthropods and hosts that are not commonly — or never have been — studied. If we don't know which ticks are associated with which animals, we may miss a pathogen circulating in wildlife populations that could spill over into human populations."

Snetsinger arthropod specimens

This group of specimens from the Frost Entomological Museum was collected in 1963 by the late Penn State entomologist Robert Snetsinger.

IMAGE: Frost Entomological Museum

She noted that more than 100 years after the first samples were collected, technology now exists to identify and photo-document ticks and other arthropods and make this information accessible to anyone with internet access.

"We also have the technology to sequence the DNA from specimens in the database to identify them and the pathogens they carry," she added.

The researchers pointed out that the project builds on previous digitization efforts at the Frost Museum, as well as on the work of past entomologists such as K.C. Kim, professor emeritus and former Frost Museum curator, and the late Robert Snetsinger, professor emeritus of entomology.

"For example, the collection of sucking lice at the Frost Museum is one of the five largest and most diverse in the world," Deans said. "We have tens of thousands of specimens and at least 300 species represented in the collection, plus dozens of species that are undoubtedly new to science.

"K.C. Kim spent the bulk of his career studying these parasites of mammals and remains one of the few experts on sucking lice. I relish the idea of strengthening Dr. Kim's legacy and increasing the relevance of our collection."

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated September 09, 2019