My projects in the Ricklefs lab

Exploring parasite dynamics in an assemblage of Neotropical birds

Malaria parasite life cycles require an intermediate host “vector”. Vectors commonly known to transmit haemoparasites to birds include mosquitos (Culicidae), black flies (Simuliidae), biting midges (Ceratopogonidae), and hippoboscid flies (Hippoboscidae), which are widely distributed geographically. Parasite transmission between vector and host is the culmination of multiple factors, including vector and host behavior, vector-bird association, and vector and host competency. The development and transmission cycles of vectors and pathogens are sensitive to changes in temperature and weather patterns, and malaria prevalence correlates with habitat structure and host life-history traits.

The goal of my dissertation research is to clarify the complex relationship within and between malaria parasite populations and their associated avian hosts. My research has three foci: 1) parasite lineage persistence in recaptured hosts, 2) parasite sharing in multispecies host flocks, and 3) community assembly rules in malaria co-infections.

I am studying these topics by utilizing a long-term Neotropical dataset from a collaboration between Dr. Robert Ricklefs’ lab at the University of Missouri – St. Louis and Dr. Jeff Brawn’s lab at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. This dataset consists of banding data and DNA samples for Neotropical birds sampled in two primary and one secondary lowland tropical forest sites in the vicinity of Gamboa, Panama.



Avian health in temperate floodplain forests

Due to farming and urbanization, the remaining forests of the Upper Mississippi River Valley are highly altered and fragmented. While these habitats are still highly valuable to locally breeding birds, as well as species migrating through the Mississippi flyway, continued degradation is causing broad-scale population declines and reduced nesting success.

A variety of habitat management efforts are currently in place across the region to conserve and monitor birds and other wildlife, but the techniques most beneficial to avian health and nesting success have not been determined. Many studies have used call transects to estimate species richness and abundance, but few of these have related management strategy to body condition and physiological indicators of avian health.

The goal of this project is to determine how management projects in Missouri affect the overall health and physiological condition of breeding and hatch-year birds throughout the nesting season, and to determine which practices are most successful. Using morphometric data and blood samples collected from birds in Missouri forests, we propose to test the hypothesis that management strategy affects health status in both adult and juvenile birds.

This project will utilize four managed forest areas overseen by the US Army Corps of Engineers: 1) Unleveed mature maple/ash/elm forest; 2) Unleveed regrowth maple/ash/elm forest; 3) Leveed mature oak forest; and 4) Leveed regrowth oak forest. We will test blood samples for blood parasite prevalence, white blood cell densities, and concentrations of haptoglobin and triglyceride as indicators of ongoing immune response and nutritional stress.