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 secured in vials and on microscope slides in research collections all over the world.
The Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) joins Purdue University and 25 other institutions to lead an effort called the Terrestrial Parasite Tracker (TPT) project. The TPT project aims to modernize the world’s knowledge of arthropod parasites by digitizing more than 1.3 million specimens using a three-year, $4.3 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant.
These specimens represent species such as ticks, which spread Lyme disease, fleas that spread plague, and mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus, malaria and other diseases.
“The goal is to build a comprehensive database of parasite-host associations and vector distributions, and make this database accessible to scientists, educators, wildlife managers, and policymakers worldwide,” said Jennifer Zaspel, research curator and head of zoology at the Milwaukee Public Museum, adjunct associate professor at Purdue, and co-PI on the project.
“When we started this project, INHS reached out to us and shared that they had a large collection of the material that we were looking for,” said Zaspel. In fact, INHS Insect Collection houses an estimated 7 million specimens of insects and arthropods.
“We plan to digitize about 100,000 insect specimens for this project,” said INHS research scientist Dmitry Dmitriev. “We are happy to partner with so many institutions to contribute to this effort.”
Digitization adds a new layer of versatility and accessibility to the collections, but it cannot replace the need for traditional collections.
“One of the coolest things about our biological collections is that we are keeping them for future unanswered questions,” said INHS insect collections manager, Tommy McElrath. “Scientists didn’t know about DNA when the survey was founded, and now we are able to get samples from those same collections.”
INHS was an early adopter of digitizing collections into databases and began digitizing its collections back in the mid-1990s. Nearly 2 million of its specimens have been digitized. This information is available from the INHS web site at http://inhsinsectcollection.speciesfile.org/InsectCollection.aspx as well is shared with global data aggregators such as iDigBio (https://www.idigbio.org/) and GBIF (https://www.gbif.org/).