Saving endangered vultures might save human lives

In the NCEAS SNAPP Ecological Levers for Health working group, we’re collecting examples of local or regional interventions that can have direct, measurable benefits for human health (via reduced infectious disease) and the environment – win-win solutions. The case studies that we’ve collected thus far are so cool that we just can’t wait to share them! So today I’m going to share a story about vulture conservation and human infectious disease. The bite-sized, Tweetstorm version of the story is available at @parasiteecology.

Let’s start with the obvious: vultures are crazy awesome birds. They have a gross/creepy reputation because they’re a bit funny looking, they eat dead stuff, and they have some odd habits, like defecating on their own legs to increase evaporative cooling. But they also have some animal superpowers: they can smell things that are kilometers away, they can fly despite being huge, and their stomach acids are so brutal that they can literally eat anthrax for breakfast.

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But even superbirds have their Kryptonite. In the past few decades, millions of vultures have died after consuming human-sourced poisons. One such poison is Diclofenac, an NSAID that is used in veterinary medicine. Because a single carcass is typically visited by many vultures, contamination with the drug in discarded livestock carcasses can have huge impacts on vulture populations. And it did. For instance, in India, populations of three vulture species (Gyps indicus, G. tenuirostris, and G. bengalensis) plummeted by 97-99% in just one decade!! Globally, the majority of vulture species are facing extinction (critically endangered, endangered, or threatened), but the vulture extinction crisis in India is especially notable.

With local and global conservation efforts and funding already stretched thinly over thousands of endangered species, why should we care about vulture conservation, specifically? Well, for starters, vultures have been spiritual and cultural icons forever. Ever seen a Western movie? Watched the Jungle Book? Gone for a walk or a drive in the wilderness? Yeah, life without vultures would be weird. It’d also smell terrible. As obligate scavengers, vultures’ unique adaptations allow them to find carcasses much sooner than many facultative scavengers (e.g., dogs, raccoons, rodents). And vultures tend to pick carrion bones clean – and might even eat the bones! – whereas other scavengers often only eat specific tissues. That means that in a world without vultures, putrefying carrion would be more common. And not just “in the wild.” Many cities around the world have rudimentary waste management, at best, and vultures are a major player in waste removal/reduction.

But in a world overrun by carrion, the stench would be the least of our problems. Carcasses repulse us because they are hotspots of disease risk – sources of exposure to anthrax, botulism, and other infectious agents. And more subtly, abundant carrion might also increase populations of animal reservoirs for disease, like rodents and feral dogs. For instance, when vulture populations drastically declined in India in the 1990s – and carrion availability hypothetically increased – the feral dog population increased by millions, despite ongoing sterilization programs. We can’t be sure that vulture declines caused the increase in feral dog populations, because many other things changed in India during that same period (e.g., urbanization). But vulture declines are one possible driver of increased feral dog populations, and during the same period, the risk of feral dog bites increased, as did the number of human deaths due to rabies (Markandya et al. 2008).

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Rabies kills 59,000 people per year – mostly in rural Asia and Africa, where access to treatment is limited – and almost all of these human rabies infections come from feral dog bites. Asia and Africa are also the hotspots of global vulture declines, and this spatial correlation suggests that adding an ecological intervention – in the form of vulture conservation – to ongoing dog sterilization and public health interventions might be a successful way to reduce rabies transmission. But interventions won’t be supported by the public and policy makers unless they are demonstrably cost-effective. So Markandya et al. (2008) figured out the economic cost of rabies in India and the cost of vulture conservation in India, and concluded that the benefits of reduced rabies outweighed the costs of vulture conservation. This could be a practical win-win!

But how do we conserve vultures? In addition to captive rearing programs to immediately buffer vulture populations, the most important conservation action was to switch from the lethal vet med Diclofenac to a vulture-friendly vet med, like Meloxicam. India, Nepal, and Pakistan all banned Dicofenac in 2006, and since then, vulture population declines seem to have slowed or even reversed (see below – Prakash et al. 2012)! But because the vulture populations are so small, the most recent populations estimates are admittedly rather uncertain, so these trends should be viewed cautiously.

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If Diclofenac is banned, why aren’t vulture populations growing like crazy? For starters, vultures are K-selected species, so their populations grow slowly even under the best conditions. And despite the ban, Diclofenac is still readily acquired, so some contaminated carcasses are still finding their way into the food chain. It’s also possible that the sheer number of feral dogs in India is hampering vulture recovery, if the vultures are being outcompeted by dogs for available carrion.

Since Indian vulture populations haven’t rebounded yet – they’ve only (hopefully) stopped declining – we wouldn’t actually expect that available carrion, dog populations, and the incidence of human rabies have decreased. So it’s too soon to say whether this ecological intervention successfully reduced human infectious disease, as predicted. To further complicate measuring the public health success of this intervention, rabies isn’t a notifiable disease in India, so human rabies cases and deaths often go unreported. Therefore, if the human health impacts of vulture conservation in India are ever going to be decisively evaluated, some intensive surveying of vulture populations, dog populations, and human rabies cases will be required in the near future.

In conclusion, education/policy initiatives for vulture conservation are predicted to be #Levers4Health – mutually beneficial solutions for human infectious disease and conservation. But enacting these interventions can be tricky, and measuring their long term success might be prohibitively difficult. We’ll be eagerly awaiting more news and data on vulture conservation, feral dog populations, and human infectious diseases from Asia and Africa.

Do you know of other examples of potential win-win solutions for reducing human infectious diseases and advancing conservation goals? If so, we’d love to hear about them! You can let us know in the comments, on Twitter, or by email!

If you’d like to learn more about the vulture conservation crisis and it’s impacts on human health, check out these references:

Balmford, A. 2013. Pollution, politics, and vultures. Science 339: 653-654.

Buechley, E.R, and Ç.H. Şekercioğlu. 2016. The avian scavenger crisis: Looming extinctions, trophic cascades, and loss of critical ecosystem functions. Biological Conservation 198: 220-228.

Gangosa, L., R. Agudo, J.D. Anadón, M. de la Riva, A.S. Suleyman, R. Porter, and J.A. Donázar. 2012. Reinventing mutualism between humans and wild fauna: insights from vultures as ecosystem services providers. Conservation Letters 6(3): 172-179.

Green, R.E., J.A. Donazar, J.A. Sanchez-Zapata, and A. Margalida. 2016. Potential threat to Eurasian griffon vultures in Spain from veterinary use of the drug diclofenac. Journal of Applied Ecology 53: 993-1003.

Ogada, D.L.,  et al. 2016. Another continental vulture crisis: Africa’s vultures collapsing toward extinction. Conservation Letters 9(2): 89-97.

Markandya, A., T. Taylor, A. Longo, M.N. Murty, S. Murty, and K. Dhavala K. 2008. Counting the cost of vulture decline – an appraisal of the human health and other benefits of vultures in India. Ecological Economics 67:194-204.

Prakash, V, et al. 2012. The population decline of Gyps vultures in India and Nepal has slowed since veterinary use of Diclofenac was banned.  PLoS ONE 7(11): e49118. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0049118

Photo/figure credits from the Tweetstorm can be found on the figures, or at these locations:

(4, 6, 8, and 15) BirdLife South Africa has a bunch of great fact cards that are worth sharing. You can check out the rest here.

(7) Thanks, Disney, for our childhoods.

(10) Photo credit to Corrinne

(12) Figure credit to Steven Vanek

(13) Find this and other excellent illustrations here

(16) From here

(18) The LA times has a great series of condor release photos here

(19) Thanks to Ginger at NCEAS for being our photographer!

Advice on how to become a successful parasite ecologist, Part III: Robert Poulin

Students just discovering the joys of parasite ecology often find themselves wondering: how do I get there from here? Or perhaps wondering what a career in parasite ecology even looks like. So I’ve organized this series of posts from well-known parasite ecologists who can give us some insight into how they got started and their suggestions for success. So far, we’ve heard from Dr. Armand Kuris, from the University of California Santa Barbara, and Dr. Pieter Johnson, from the University of Colorado Boulder. This week, we have some great advice from Dr. Robert Poulin, from the University of Otago.

Who is Robert Poulin?

I’ve never actually managed to meet Robert in person, but he’s an excellent example of success in parasite ecology, because he’s a giant in the field. You’ve probably seen his work on this blog many times (e.g., here); he even won the Golden Cercaria Award for being the most prolific parasite ecologist of the 21st century! Furthermore, after I began this post series, some of Robert’s former students/mentees specifically wrote to me to tell me that Robert was the perfect candidate for a student advice post. So without further ado, here are his thoughts!

Robert, how long have you been a parasite ecologist, and what do you study?

“I started thinking of myself as a parasite ecologist, instead of simply an ecologist, in the late 1980s when I was a graduate student. My research group’s interests have evolved and broadened over the years, but have remained aligned with four major themes. First, we explore the fascinating phenomenon of host behavioural manipulation by parasites, from its ecological significance down to its underlying mechanisms. Second, we investigate the forces shaping the evolution of parasites, in particular the evolution of life history traits such as body size, host specificity, and the complexity of transmission pathways. Third, we study the patterns and determinants of parasite diversity and biogeography, from small to global scales. Finally, we investigate the role of parasites in natural ecosystems, i.e. how they affect community structure and food web stability, and how parasitism may interact with environmental change to influence the properties of ecosystems. Our research uses multiple approaches, and extends to all host or parasite taxa, and to marine, freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems.”

How did you get into parasite ecology?

“I’m an accidental parasitologist. I started off in graduate school with a pretty basic ecological research topic: what abiotic and biotic factors regulate growth and survival of young sticklebacks in their first months of life. My very first field sample revealed “little things” attached to the fish. Working in a remote village on the shores of the St. Lawrence River estuary in the days before the internet, I had access to no information and could only guess at what they were. They later turned out to be parasitic crustaceans (copepods and branchiurans). It took only very simple preliminary observations in aquaria to suggest that infection by these “little things” caused the fish to behave differently, from their tendency to school to their choice of microhabitat. Months later, back at the university, I convinced my adviser that I wanted to re-direct my thesis to look at the behavioural effects of parasite infection. That was it; I have not looked back nor regretted it since.”

What kinds of skills or training do you look for when you’re considering taking on new graduate students?

“Beyond the obvious, e.g. solid formation in ecology or parasitology, an ability to write, strong quantitative skills, demonstrated ability to get the job done, etc., I think passion and drive are essential. I prefer enthusiastic students who need to get held back a little rather than those that need constant nudging. Also, my research group is diverse and cosmopolitan, so I look for people who are likely to fit well in our team.”

What are the most important things that graduate students can do to become successful parasite ecologists?

“Instead of repeating the advice I often hear in reply to this question (publish early and in top journals, etc), here are a few other thoughts. First, think and read broadly, well outside the bounds of your current research. New concepts emerging in peripheral disciplines can prove extremely useful to the study of parasite ecology. The first person to read about these new ideas and apply them to parasite ecology moves one step ahead of the pack. For example, late in my graduate studies and into my postdoc, I read about the emergence of two new approaches to the analysis of large datasets, unknown in ecology then but now widely used: meta-analysis and phylogenetically-controlled comparative analysis. Having just read about these techniques in journals of social sciences and evolutionary biology, I was among the very first to apply these methods to parasite ecology. The papers I published from this work have generally become well-cited and certainly boosted my early career.

Second, actively seek opportunities to collaborate, either with other parasite ecologists or with colleagues in other areas. The synergy of ideas and the long-term relationships that come out of collaborative projects are certainly important for success.

Finally, don’t be afraid to take a few risks. You may have an idea for a really cool experiment that, if successful, would yield super interesting results, but everyone tells you its chances of success are low. You don’t want all your experiments to be risky, but taking the odd risk with the possibility of a nice payoff can be worth it.”

Is there anything else that you’d like to share with the blog audience?

“Maybe a final bit of advice for those who want to pursue a career in parasite ecology (or science in general): keep your chin up! As you submit a growing number of articles, grant proposals or job applications, rejection becomes inevitable. A degree of resilience is essential to cope with the first few rejections and carry on undeterred. Persistence is a key ingredient of success, especially early in your career.”

All great advice. Many thanks to Robert for contributing to the blog and our future careers!

Unofficial ESA 2017 Parasite Ecology Cartoon Contest

ESA 2017 is next week! Yikes, that’s soon!

As usual, I’ll have tons of fun judging an Unofficial ESA Parasite Ecology Cartoon Contest. My favorite cartoonist will be awarded an almost entirely worthless prize (i.e., some publicity for their cool science and bragging rights for a year).

To participate, all you need to do is put a cartoon in your talk. The cartoons don’t need to be funny! They also don’t need to be your personal artwork – borrowing with permission and attribution is fine. I’m just looking for cartoons that help communicate your work to the audience. That being said, anything punny is worth mega bonus points.

Somehow, the Daphnia cartoons always win, so all of you non-Daphnia people better step up this year.

To anticipate some questions:

Can you use cartoons from this site, if you use proper attribution? Yes!

Can the judge be swayed by offers of free lattes or postdoc positions? No! (Except yes. So much yes.)

Good luck!!

Parasites and de-extinction

[We’re still taking a break from the “how to become a successful parasite ecologist” post series. More on that in a few weeks!]

Sometime during my undergraduate education, I was required to prepare for and participate in a class debate exercise regarding whether we should bring animals like the woolly mammoth back from extinction. In the years since, I haven’t kept up with that literature at all, so I was quite surprised to read this opening line in a recent paper: “De-extinction is rapidly transitioning from scientific aspiration to inevitability.” Wow!

But that wasn’t even the most exciting part of the paper. Wood et al. (2017) went on to point out that to successfully ‘resurrect’ extinct species, we would need to ensure that the appropriate abiotic and biotic environments exist to sustain those resurrected species. You know what that means, don’t you? Parasites. If we’re going to resurrect extinct species, we need to give them parasites.

Here’s a quote from the paper. I hope it makes you ponder things… I certainly did.

“Would it be possible to genetically manufacture a parasite fauna and microbiota to suit the resurrected species, perhaps using palaeoecological data as a guide? Or would a mixture of extant parasites and microbiota, from species with a similar ecological niche, be sufficient? What implications would there be of a failure to adequately reconstruct these obligate microbiotic communities for the resurrected species and the ecosystem within which it is to be embedded?”

mammoth

Reference:

Wood, J. R., Perry, G. L. W. and Wilmshurst, J. M. 2017. Using palaeoecology to determine baseline ecological requirements and interaction networks for de-extinction candidate species. Funct Ecol, 31: 1012–1020. doi:10.1111/1365-2435.12773

 

Predicting zoonotic spillover

[We’re taking a break from the “how to become a successful parasite ecologist” post series. More on that in a few weeks!]

Poop is pretty gross, and some poop is more disgusting than other poop. I’m sure you’d agree with both of those statements, but why? Imagine, if you will, that you are participating in one of my favorite activities: crawling in a narrow cave passage, with just enough room above you to wear your pack while you’re crawling. You round a corner and discover a very interesting conundrum: the small passage forks momentarily, and one fork contains a large pile of fresh raccoon poop, while the other is sprinkled with bat guano (less fresh). You’ll obviously avoid crawling directly through either one, but which is most important to avoid?

When parasites and pathogens that infect wildlife or domesticated species spillover into humans, it can be pretty terrible – think Ebola, SARS, rabies, etc. And depending on how you define “zoonosis” – we’ll get back to that in an upcoming post – you might say that most emerging infectious diseases of humans are caused by zoonotic parasites and pathogens. So disease ecologists should and do spend a lot of time trying to understand what causes the spillover of wildlife parasites into human populations, and how to predict and even control such spillover events.

The EcoHealth Alliance group is well known for tackling this important and complicated issue, and they recently published some great synthesis science in Nature that works towards understanding and predicting the origins of zoonotic viruses (Olival et al. 2017). Olival et al. (2017) created a database that contained every known virus of mammals and the 754 mammal species infected by those viruses. They also had trait information for each virus and each mammal species. Then they explored their massive mammal-virus data mountain with the intention of  answering ~4 big questions:

Which mammal species host the most known viruses, and what makes some mammal species have more viruses than others? As we’ve seen in other studies, the most important determinant of viral richness in each mammal species was the total disease-related research effort that has focused on that mammal species in the past. (This was also true for the number of zoonotic viruses per host species – see next). In other words, the more we look, the more we find! But Olival et al. (2017) take this one step further, and use model predictions to tell us where we should look to find the most new viruses and the most new zoonotic viruses – see below.

Which mammals host the most known zoonotic viruses, and what makes some mammal species have more zoonotic viruses than others? For the purposes of this paper, zoonotic viruses were defined as viruses detected at least once in humans and at least once in another mammal species. Proportionally speaking, bats, primates, and rodents had more zoonotic viruses than other mammal taxa. And some host traits that correlated with the number of zoonotic viruses per species included phylogenetic distance to humans, ratio of urban to rural human population in the host’s range (a possible measure of human-wildlife contact), and whether the species was hunted (another measure of human-wildlife contact). Even after controlling for all of those covariates, bats hosted higher proportions of zoonotic viruses than other mammal taxa.

If you’re a long time follower of this blog or the disease ecology literature, then you know that this isn’t the first study to find that bats host more than their fair share of zoonotic viruses. For instance, previous work had shown that bat species have more zoonotic viruses than rodent species, on average. (But there are more rodent species than bat species, so rodents host more total zoonotic viruses). Olival et al. (2017) confirm this with a dataset including many more viruses and mammal taxa, so the “bats are special” pattern is quite robust! If you’re wondering why bats host more proportionally more zoonotic viruses than other mammal taxa, you might be interested in these previous posts: here, here, and here.

Where do we expect to find the most undescribed viruses, and in particular zoonotic viruses? It turns out that if you want to find new zoonotic viruses, the best place to look would be bats in Northern South America. Cool! You can check out the neat maps in the paper if you’re interested in other taxa or geographic areas.

Did particular virus traits correlate with whether a virus has been observed to be zoonotic or not? Yes! For instance, viruses that that infected a greater range of non-human host species (i.e., host breadth), replicated in the cytoplasm, or were transmitted by vectors were more likely to be zoonotic. Of course, these viral traits don’t 100% predict whether a newly discovered virus will be zoonotic or not, but these descriptive models help to identify hypotheses that can explain why some viruses easily jump into humans and others don’t.

So… what does all of this tell us about poop in caves? Well, not much, actually. The Olival et al. (2017) study was meant to describe broad patterns and make predictions to guide future survey/surveillance efforts, not to inform specific risk assessments. But to follow up on my admittedly tenuous hook, we DO know that some mammals are far more likely to pass on viruses to humans than others. So if you have to choose between hugging a bat or a rabbit (or crawling through their poop), pick the rabbit!

But of course, it isn’t just viruses that we need to worry about, so I gladly chose guano over raccoon poop – I was worried that the raccoon poop might contain Baylisascurus eggs. I’ll keep my eye out for their next Nature paper that does this study with all parasites and pathogens!

Batsarefriends

Advice on how to become a successful parasite ecologist, Part II: Pieter Johnson

Students just discovering the joys of parasite ecology often find themselves wondering: how do I get there from here? Or perhaps wondering what a career in parasite ecology even looks like. So I’ve organized this series of posts from well-known parasite ecologists who can give us some insight into how they got started and their suggestions for success. Last week, we heard from Dr. Armand Kuris from the University of California Santa Barbara. This week, we have some great advice from Dr. Pieter Johnson from the University of Colorado Boulder.

Who is Pieter Johnson?

When you read cool papers as a new student, it’s often hard to imagine the authors as real people instead of superheroes. So I will begin with a story about the Clark Kent version of Piet Johnson. In 2015, I met Piet for the first time. I’d actually talked to him twice before via email – once when I was an undergrad, and once when he emailed the anonymously-written Parasite Ecology blog – and he was so nice via email that I wasn’t particularly anxious about introducing myself at ESA. At least, I wasn’t anxious until he said in a ponderous voice, “Ahhh, I’ve been waiting to meet you.” Apparently my secret identity wasn’t as secret as I thought… but I digress.

After a brief chat, several freshwater ecologists – including Piet and myself – headed to a dive bar for some evening festivities. In fact, the bar was called The Dive Bar, and it housed a huge aquarium full of fish and a real live mermaid that periodically swam into view and blew kisses to the patrons. That’s where I learned that Piet is an enthusiastic and highly driven ecologist. He was fueled by scientific passion (and perhaps a dare) to go study mermaid ecology. Mermaids are known to be quite dangerous, so he prudently decided to get in the mermaid tank to study the habitat while the mermaid wasn’t present. And then he left to go do just that, taking nothing but a somewhat hastily concocted research plan. Coincidentally, a large red light began flashing behind the bar moments later, and Piet returned shortly after to report that you need special permits to study the endangered mermaid, and alas, he did not have such a permit.

And now for the superhero story. When he isn’t crashing mermaid parties, Dr. Johnson is busy being a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder. His graduate students and postdocs have gone on to be successful parasite ecologists, and Piet is one of the best examples of productivity and success in the field of parasite ecology. In fact, he’s one of the most prolific parasite ecologists of the 21st century. He’s published 125 papers, some of which you can find summarized on this blog (here, here, here, and here). And his very first paper, which he submitted as an undergraduate, was published in Science.

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So, without further ado, here’s his take on how to become a successful parasite ecologist.

Piet, how long have you been a parasite ecologist, and what do you study?

“Since the early 1990s. I study the role of parasites and pathogens in ecological communities and ecosystems. In its simplest essence, I’m often interested in what a world without parasites would look like – how would things be different? I’m biased in favor of freshwater systems, which have historically been a very rich arena for research on community and ecosystem ecology, even if the contributions of parasites were not always broadly considered by ecologists. Our group tries to bring a broad range of perspectives and approaches to this question, with particular emphasis on linking large-scale empirical datasets with experiments and theory.”

How did you get into parasite ecology?

“Through the back door. I’m primarily an ecologist who became interested in parasites and what they were doing. When I was a student, a lot of ecology textbooks barely mentioned parasites in deference to other ecological interactions such as competition and predation. The perception was that parasites and disease were more in the realm of veterinary science, parasitology, and epidemiology rather than core components of ecology. When I first started investigating frog deformities I kept on noticing what I would later learn were parasite cysts while examining animals under the microscope. At the time, it was difficult to find knowledgeable collaborators or faculty, and so I ended up spending a lot of time with textbooks and primary literature that eventually got me hooked on parasites. From my background in ecology, it was quickly apparent that there were many rich opportunities to better integrate research between ecology and parasitology/disease biology.”

What kinds of skills or training do you look for when you’re considering taking on new graduate students?

“That’s a tough one. I think I look for that right balance between someone who is a big picture thinker but can also get a project finished. Someone who is passionate about scientific questions but has a healthy respect for data and what goes into collecting it – i.e., why details matter. I also look for someone who would mesh well with the current lab group and be fun to work with (after all, graduate school can last a while!). Sense of humor can help here. I therefore rely heavily on the assessments of my current and former graduate students when interviewing a candidate.”

What are the most important things that graduate students can do to become successful parasite ecologists?

“Working in disease ecology is challenging because it really requires that you master multiple fields of study, often demanding that you keep on top of literatures such as ecology, parasitology, epidemiology and aspects of veterinary science. This is also what makes it interesting and creates the potential to market yourself to multiple audiences, job opportunities, journals, etc. With this in mind, I think it’s essential to begin developing your own network early, reaching out to collaborate with other scientists, attend (and present) at diverse conferences, and in general to talk about your research (which will force you to refine it with others’ feedback). Second, I tend to emphasize the ‘learn by doing’ model – while it’s great to continue thinking, reading and refining, start a project early even if it’s not your magnum opus. Same goes with publishing – start early and learn to enjoy it as a major forum of communication. No one is born a good scientific writer so there’s really only one way to practice. And finally, take your ideas seriously. Most projects fail, but we often come up with better ideas while watching our initial project go down in flames. Write those ideas down (or the ones that come to you when you’re supposed to be doing something else) and, as the sting of your failed project fades, throw yourself into Plan B. Or Plan C… While science is often portrayed as an elegant, formalized test of pre-conceived hypotheses, much of it is iterative, messy, and opportunistic — being ready to recognize those opportunities is invaluable.”

That’s a lot of excellent advice! If you want to know more, I’d recommend finding Piet at a conference – maybe you can go study mermaids together!

How to become a successful parasite ecologist, Part I: Armand Kuris

Careers are odd things. The most important moments in your career might be purely serendipitous, causing you to owe the next 40 or 50 years of your life to being in the right place at the right time with the right people. But to capitalize on those chance events when they occur, you need the right training, hard work, and great mentors.

Careers in parasite ecology are no exception to these general rules, and students just discovering the joys of parasite ecology often find themselves wondering: how do I get there from here? Or perhaps wondering what a career in parasite ecology even looks like. So I’ve organized a series of posts from well-known parasite ecologists who can give us some insight into how they got started and their suggestions for success. You’ll see that the leaders in our field have had diverse beginnings and diverse careers, and they also have diverse advice for students. Thus, the advice contained herein is not meant to be “one size fits all,” but I do hope that there is something here for everyone.

Who is to Armand Kuris?

My first interview was with Dr. Armand Kuris, professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at the University of California Santa Barbara. I need to research this more, but Armand might be the first official “parasite ecologist,” because he specifically applied for and was accepted to a tenure track position for a “parasite ecologist” at UCSB back in 1975.

Armand’s work has been hugely influential in its own right, but he is perhaps equally well known for training exceptional students. Also, his famous parasitology course has received rave reviews. (I can’t wait to audit it myself!) Given his very student-friendly attitude, I thought he’d be a great first interview. And since I now get to see Armand every week, I had the opportunity to interview him in person. I’ve done my best to summarize his charismatic answers here:

What does Armand study?

Armand leads the UCSB Parasite Ecology lab with Kevin Lafferty and Mark Torchin, and their lab group is somewhat unique in that they have a lab mission statement. The mission of the UCSB Parasite Ecology lab is to understand the role of infectious processes in ecosystems. ANY ecosystem and ANY parasite are fair game! (But they do have their favorites.) You can see this diversity of lab interests on their webpage.

How long has Armand been a parasite ecologist, and how did he get into parasite ecology? (Also, what does Armand wish he studied?)

I’m sure that Armand will appreciate me telling you that he has been a parasite ecologist since before I was born; he started in 1964. Actually, he was a parasite ecologist even before my mom was born (if you go by the age that she tells people). That’s a lot of parasite ecology!

So, how did he get into parasite ecology way back in 1964? “By accident.” Armand had intended to go off to graduate school to become, “G-d’s gift to minnow taxonomy.” (Did I mention that he’s a character?) But his intended graduate advisor tragically passed away, forcing Armand to make other plans. He had enjoyed an undergraduate parasitology course at Tulane University with Frank Sogandares, where Armand was given a nutria (!!) to dissect and enjoyed thinking about complex life cycles. So he went off to do his Masters studying the myxozoan parasites of freshwater fishes. After that, he went on to a more ecology-focused PhD thesis, where he studied an isopod that is a parasitic castrator of crabs.

To his great dismay, Armand never returned to studying fishes, even though he loves them. Instead, he maintains beautiful aquaria and fish ponds here in Santa Barbara, while mostly studying invertebrates. I, for one, am very glad that he joined the Dark Side.

darthcrab

What kinds of skills or training does Armand look for in perspective graduate students?

Nothing in particular, actually! He’s more interested in finding students who are passionate, willing to think, and have demonstrated good work ethic. He also looks for students whose personalities will mesh well with the rest of the UCSB Parasite Ecology Lab.

What does Armand consider to be the most important things that graduate students can do to become successful parasite ecologists?

Picking the right thesis project is critical, and Armand suggests tackling the most important issue that you think you can do something about, and making sure that you care about that project.

He’s also a strong proponent of side projects, which he calls “adventure science.” Dan Janzen, the famous conservationist, taught Armand that there are two types of grad students, those that are r-selected and those that are K-selected students. The quick-to-finish r-selected strategy can be great for some students. But Armand promotes a K-selected strategy where students have more side projects. Taking expeditions and adventures when they are available enriches students’ knowledge and helps students network and gain important skills and experiences.

Armand has a wealth of other knowledge for graduate students, but instead of including it all here, I’ll encourage you to seek him out at a conference!  You can also find more in these video interviews: here and here.