The main goal of my research program is to develop better ecological interventions for controlling parasites and pathogens that are detrimental for humans, our domesticated species, and/or wildlife of conservation concern. But if you counted all those detrimental parasite species, you would find that they are a tiny drop in the enormous bucket of global parasite biodiversity. The remaining parasite species aren't so bad: they control host populations, including those of important insect pests; they filter our water (i.e., many freshwater mussels); they turn into beautiful butterflies; and they serve as important links in food webs. These "good" parasites might be highly vulnerable to extinction due to global change, because they experience both primary extinction risks (e.g., loss of suitable environmental conditions due to climate change) and secondary co-extinction risks due to reduced abundances or total loss of their resources: free-living host species. Therefore, my newest research aims to answer fundamental questions in the emerging field of parasite conservation: which and how many parasite species are vulnerable to extinction, how should we prioritize parasite conservation, and what conservation strategies work for parasites?
A major barrier to understanding how parasite biodiversity changes with free-living biodiversity is our lack of long-term, high-resolution host--parasite datasets. Therefore, I am currently working to retrospectively construct such a dataset for parasites of Chesapeake Bay fishes by selecting fluid-preserved fish museum specimens collected from 1875 to present for parasitological dissections. Preliminary results suggest that the Chesapeake Bay has a diverse but mostly unstudied parasite community, and United States museums contain more than 20,000 fluid-preserved fishes that might be strategically dissected to learn more about this parasite community. This project is a collaborative effort with Drs. Chelsea Wood (University of Washington), Mark Torchin (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute), and Carole Baldwin (Smithsonian Institution).
Though impassioned pleas for parasite conservation were first seen in the literature decades ago, parasite conservation research has been sporadic and spread across geographically isolated research groups - until now! To bring together all those perspectives, I organized an oral session entitled, "Parasite Conservation in the Face of Global Change: Opportunities, Challenges, and Next Steps" for ESA 2018. My co-organizer (Dr. Colin Carlson) and I successfully united an international group of ten researchers from diverse institutions and career stages, and we're excited for the new collaborations and deliverables that our session sparked.