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Disease ecology: an evolutionary perspective. We use a combination of approaches to understand the complex relationships between animal populations and their parasites and pathogens. Whether working on birds in Galapagos, lemurs in Madagascar, monkeys in Peru, snakes in Armenia, or endangered beetles here in Missouri, we use a variety of approaches to understand the histories of the vertebrate lineages and how they are using their current landscape, and then we do the same for their pathogens. Individual students may focus on a particular bird species to understand history, current structure and pathogens, or to focus on an insect vector with the same objectives, or to focus on an interaction between a vertebrate lineage and a vector or pathogen. The results are relevant to both basic studies of host-parasite coevolutionary dynamics, and to applied conservation problems aiming to understand and control disease threats in wildlife populations.
The approaches we use start with old-timey fieldwork, studying animals in their natural habitats. We may bring back small tissue samples for genetic analysis to identify pathogens or understand evolutionary relationships among host lineages (phylogenetics and phylogeography) and how they assort themselves in space (population genetics). Microscopy is key at the parasite level, to use morphological features in combination with genetics to identify pathogens.
With the Saint Louis Zoo's WildCare Institute we work to survey diseases of the endemic and introduced avifauna of the Galapagos Islands, in collaboration with the Galapagos National Park and the Charles Darwin Foundation. We have found pathogens in three broad categories: (1) those that seem to have arrived with the colonizing ancestors of the endemic fauna and diversified alongside their hosts; (2) those that are more recent arrivals, perhaps through introduced or domestic animals; and (3) those that may have jumped from one host lineage to another since their arrival on the islands. These data, especially when combined with population genetic data on current and historic movement of host and pathogen populations among islands, provide managers with important information on current threats and opportunities for remediation, as well as many opportunities for studies of interest to basic science.