Parasites and Pathogens

An important part of our most recent work in Malawi has been collecting endo- and ectoparasites as well as blood samples to examine for blood parasites and pathogens. We have done this work on birds and small mammals. These collections have a number of applications. Little is known about normal levels of parasites and pathogens carried by these birds, so by performing baseline sampling comparisons can be made in the future to learn if these levels are changing over time. Additionally, if there is a disease breakout in human populations from an animal-borne illness, samples can be taken from animals in those areas and compared to our baseline samples. The sampling from our most recent fieldwork is being studied in our own lab and the labs on several colleagues.

There are also evolutionary applications. Evolution of their parasites can give insights into evolution of the birds and mammals themselves. We are also working to identify the prevalence rates and diversity of strains of avian malaria in Malawi’s birds. New genomic techniques are being used, in collaboration with the University of Chicago, to compare the diversity of gut flora in birds that live in both pristine habitats and around human habitation.

An image of preliminary screening for malaria parasites in the blood of samples collected in 2009 in Malawi. Some parts of the image have been blurred. Image © Holly L. Lutz / The Field Museum.