Southern Amazonian birds and their symbionts

Principal Investigators Jason Weckstein and John Bates of the Field Museum, Vasyl Tkach of the University of North Dakota, Alexandre Aleixo of the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi and several other parasitologists from the USA, Brazil, Bulgaria, and Ukraine have been funded by the National Science Foundation's Biodiversity and Discovery and Analysis Program (DEB-01120054 and DEB-1120734) to conduct collaborative biodiversity surveys to study, describe, and archive parasites associated with birds in five geographically isolated regions (areas of endemism) of southern Amazonian Brazil.  The research will involve collection and deposition of museum specimens for research and will use both physical characteristics and genetic data from both the birds and their parasites to describe this poorly known segment of biological diversity in the world’s richest ecosystem.

At over 6.5 million km2, Amazonia is estimated to harbor more than one tenth of the world’s species. Brazilian Amazonia harbors the most diverse bird fauna on earth (~1300 species), yet the parasite fauna of Amazonian birds is almost completely unstudied.  Parasites are incredibly diverse and make up 30-70% of life on earth.  This international collaboration will provide an unprecedented opportunity to document these groups of organisms and build collections and capacity to understand their diversity through research now and into the future.

This project has a number of important societal benefits. First, this work fosters international collaboration between US and Brazilian researchers and students, who will travel between these institutions to teach, learn, work, and collaborate to further the understanding of birds and their parasites.  Training of a diverse pool (including underrepresented groups) of US and Brazilian graduate and undergraduate students will augment the diminishing pool of expertise working on understudied parasite groups.  This study also will have long-term value because parasites are known to have important consequences on the health, behavior, demography, and evolution of their hosts (including humans and other animals).  Parasites are known to cause or spread disease among and between hosts.  Thus, through modern cutting edge approaches to gathering, archiving, and studying the material collected, this project will make substantial lasting contributions to our knowledge of the diversity, distribution, and evolutionary history, of avian parasites in Amazonia, and therefore will have important human and wildlife health implications far into the future.  Lastly, this research is a novel collaborative effort to gather data needed to conserve the biodiversity of the Amazon, the richest fauna on earth.

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