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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?”



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!


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.


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.


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.

EEID 2017 Recap

EEID 2017 in Santa Barbara was a hit! The poster session and all of the social events took place outside in beautiful weather, to the immense enjoyment of (almost) everyone. There were 57 talks and ~135 posters, which added up to roughly two dump truck loads of cool science. I was especially thrilled with the Ecological Levels for Health State of the Science Summit, which helped to kick off a productive SNAPP working group.

Like the hardcore parasite ecologist that I am, I brought a shiny new acute Lyme infection with me to EEID. I thought this would give me some solid street cred, but Dan Salkeld told us that there are a whopping 300,000 new Lyme cases in the U.S. every year. So I guess I’m not that special (1/300,000). My infection must just be my penance for living in a state with many fried chicken restaurants.

Anyways, antibiotic-induced sun sensitivity forced me to spend a lot of time lurking in shady corners like the subterranean beast that I am. But I somehow still managed to meet and re-connect with a ton of awesome scientists. This was my first conference where the “secret identity” of the parasite ecology blogger was no longer a secret, and I want to thank all of the very kind people who found me and told me that they enjoy the blog and use it in their classes. You’re the best!

I also want to share two hilarious things that I learned from talking to all of you in person. First, many people have been wrongly accused of being the parasite ecology blogger over the years – sorry about that! But I was super flattered to learn that people assumed that I was an eminent parasite ecologist. And second, many of the people in our field are disturbingly proficient Internet stalkers! Their tales of hunting down my true identity – sometimes successfully! – would make for a good novel.

And finally, I want to announce the winner of the Unofficial EEID 2017 Parasite Ecology Cartoon Contest: Tara Stewart! Tara gave an interesting and remarkably poised talk about how Daphnia can resist and clear their Metschnikowia infections. If I remember correctly, Daphnia cartoons have won every parasite ecology cartoon contest that I’ve ever blogged. But I think that beyond Daphnia just being super cute, Tara’s cartoons really deserved first place for science communication excellence. Congratulations!

There will be a similar Unofficial ESA 2017 Parasite Ecology Cartoon Contest in roughly one month. The non-Daphnia people better show up and represent!

Unofficial EEID 2017 Parasite Ecology Cartoon Contest

EEID 2017 starts this weekend, and I hope to see y’all there! As I always do, I’ll be conducting an unofficial parasite ecology cartoon contest when I watch talks – mostly for my own enjoyment, but also so that I can brag up peoples’ talks and parasite cartoons after the conference. If you want to play – and I hope you will – all you need to do is put a cartoon in your EEID talk.

Finer details:

You do not need to make your own cartoon. If you use a cartoon created by someone else, it’ll count as long as you properly attribute credit to the artist.

The cartoons don’t need to be funny! I’m just looking for cartoons that help communicate your work to the audience. That being said, anything punny is worth mega bonus points.

My favorite cartoonist will be awarded an almost entirely worthless prize (i.e., some publicity for your cool science and bragging rights for a year).

I might be able to look at cartoons on posters, too, but I can’t guarantee broad coverage, because I have to stand at my poster for a while. So let me know if you want me to try to swing by your poster.

Good luck!!