UNM’s Museum of Southwestern Biology Division of Parasites, curated by Dr. Sam Loker, was only established in 2011, but it has grown quickly. The collection already features parasites from host like species including badgers, otters, caribou, moose, cougars and whales.
Dr. Sara Brant, senior collections manager of the Parasite Division, and her colleagues are now concentrating on sorting through the samples and cataloging them.
“These sat in someone’s house for 50 years and no one knew what was in there, and we have just started to capture and preserve the diversity that’s here. Each specimen tells a story about the past, present and future,” Brant said.“There are a lot of different things that you can do with them. One of the things I want is to turn some of this into education.”
Brant said she hopes to display part of the collection and develop a mobile teaching unit.
Other advantages of the museum include long-term storage of samples for use by future scientists, and a searchable database called Arctos that can link a particular parasite in the museum to the host species it was collected from, which may be stored upstairs in the MSB.
The parasite record can also be linked to any type of data, such as DNA sequences, images, and publications. All of this is accessible to the public.
“I think that’s the really powerful part about this, that it’s not a dead-end study. These studies can continue over time,” said Dr. Ben Hanelt, research assistant professor of biology. “I think that’s the real service that this museum provides.”
Hanelt has donated many of his samples to the museum. He studies particularly creepy critters known as nematomorphs, or horsehair worms. The bugs have gained recent attention for their “zombie”-like behavior, as they are able to take over their host’s brain and manipulate its behavior.
Nematomorphs infect bugs, such as crickets, and live in the cricket for anywhere from 30 days to 18 months depending on the species of worm. During this time the parasite develops from a larva into a fully grown adult, consuming much of the internal components of the cricket — while still keeping it alive and functioning. When it is time to leave its host, the nematomorph steers the cricket to water and emerges out the back end, killing the cricket at the last second.
Ideally the water is a stream, though it can be any freshwater source such as toilets and pet water bowls. Clearly, this has potential to freak people out – which ultimately leads to Google searches that direct them to Hanelt, who said he receives around 10 emails a week from people who have found these worms. Often they will send the specimen to him. Before the MSB parasite division opened he had amassed a large collection of parasites from all over the world, but had nowhere to put them.
“I just started looking at these [specimens] thinking, this is crazy. Theyall have identifiers, they’re all sort of unique. But what happens if I walk across Lomas tomorrow and get hit by a car? What happens to these samples 50 years from now when I’m no longer around?” Hanelt said.
Brant has also donated her personal collection, some gathered in collaboration with Loker, comprised mostly of a group of parasites called schistosomes. Some schistosome species can infect humans and pose a major health risk, particularly in areas without drinkable water. According to the World Health Organization, these infections affect 240 million people worldwide.
Brant collects her samples through any means necessary, from approaching hunters to ask for the less desirable parts of animal carcasses, to scouting for unlucky road kill, to once working with an actual crocodile hunter. Studying schistosomes for nearly 10 years, Brant has helped to identify around 10 new genera and 20 new species.
Both she and Hanelt often collect samples from local New Mexico water sources. Fortunately, schistosomes in New Mexico are avian-infecting species, meaning they can only infect and are truly harmful to birds. However, they still try to infect humans, squirting digestive enzymes onto the surface of the skin and burrowing into hair follicles. The experience is called swimmer’s itch, something Brant gained first-hand knowledge of while working in the stagnant pools of an Albuquerque nature center.
“When I was out collecting these guys, I had my hands in these little tide pools,” Brant described. “Well, sure enough by the end of the day I just knew, and the next day my arm had all these red dots.”
With little fear of becoming food for the parasites they love, Brant said she and Hanelt will continue working hard on one of the most unique collections anywhere.