By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
Documenting biodiversity is an important part of the Field Book Project. I recently came across a more visceral side of biodiversity while cataloging. It demonstrates the “interconnectedness” of nature in a practical sense -- ectoparasites as disease vectors. Ectoparasites are really annoying insects and other arthropods like fleas, mites, ticks, lice that spread diseases…you don’t get more connected than that.
This topic is perhaps more relevant to current events than the typical Field Book Project blog post topic. West Nile virus, N1H1 virus, and Lyme disease are all examples of diseases spread through disease vectors.
The field books that we have cataloged relating to this subject represent one facet of the Smithsonian’s research on disease vectors. The Department of Entomology has had an ongoing relationship with the US Army, Walter Reed Biosystematics Unit (WRBU) since 1961. The two organizations work together to manage and develop the NMNH Mosquito Collection, which has become the largest of its kind at 1.5 million specimens. The collection relates to the Army’s efforts to plan for possible disease vectors at new locations where military are deployed.
Since the beginning of the Field Book Project we have cataloged notes from several collecting efforts that studied disease vectors. In the Division of Birds and Division of Mammals, we came across four Smithsonian projects and field books from the US Army Hemorrhagic Fever Team as well as Naval Medical Research Units (NAMRU). These spanned 1950’s to 1970’s and encompassed impressive amounts of geography. The four projects are: the Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program (POBSP), U.S. Palearctic Migratory Bird Survey, Venezuela Project, and Smithsonian African Mammal Project.
I cataloged a portion of the POBSP collection in the Division of Birds; it was the first time I came across detailed notes on not only wildlife (in this case birds), but also transects of vegetation in habitat, and ectoparasites found on the birds, all in the same journals. This project was one of several that received a portion of its funding from the Department of Defense. I was intrigued by the projects’ similarities in timing, size, and funding; I wondered if the similarities were coincidence or if there was something in common influencing the structure and timing of all the projects.
But first I’d like to talk a little more about the type of information recorded in field notes for these projects. The study of ectoparasites constituted a significant portion of the African Mammal Project’s field books I recently cataloged, and unlike POBSP, notes on host animals and ectoparasites were recorded in separate catalogs. Often entitled “bug books,” collectors would record the presence of ectoparasites collected from the mammal specimens, and note the presence of fleas, mites, ticks, lice; as well as genus of host. The Smithsonian Venezuelan project yielded even more detailed information per mammal host. These included survey data sheets that recorded per mammal specimen recording:
- type of ectoparasite
- time of day
- phase of moon
- specific site #
- temperature (maximum and minimum)
- humidity (maximum and minimum)
- elevation, latitude and longitude
These also included an additional 18 other pieces of information about the mammal host. When I started cataloging in entomology, I spoke with one of the scientists who informed me that some of the collected ectoparasites are in the Smithsonian entomology collection.
I had a chance to speak to Pam Henson, Director of the Institutional History Division at the Smithsonian Institution, about these projects. It turns out these projects came at an interesting time in the history of the Smithsonian and federally funded research. The Smithsonian houses and cares for national collections of the United States; the institution maintains long term relationships with the agencies that contributed to these collections. Scientists who work for the Smithsonian historically conduct pure science research. When we find field books relating to applied science research (usually of economic or medical importance), the work was typically completed by federal agency like US Department of Agriculture, US Geological Survey, and US Biological Survey; specimens from the organizations were transferred to the Smithsonian who became caretaker of the collections. This is how NMNH came to include the NAMRU and Hemorrhagic Fever Team field books. The military team field books are from conflict zones during the 1950’s and 1960’s and document collecting of mammals and insects to study sites of disease outbreaks among troops, like work completed by the US Army Hemorrhagic Fever Team. The resulting mammal specimens were given to the Smithsonian along with the field books as documentation.
The four Smithsonian projects mentioned earlier were major undertakings involving applied research conducted by Smithsonian staff. It seems that all of these projects garnered significant funding from DOD, partly because of growing concerns about disease vectors affecting troops in new locations. By the beginning of the 1970’s, the Smithsonian decided for several reasons that this type of research was outside its scope. Smithsonian staff returned their focus to pure science research, whose results could be shared without restriction.
These studies offer an amazingly clear example of interconnectedness of nature at work. The resulting documents can delineate relationships across types of flora and fauna to a specimen and its collecting site. Additionally these projects offer a unique glimpse into the history of scientific collecting approaches and our Institution history.