Collaborative Research: Digitization TCN: Digitizing collections to trace parasite-host associations and predict the spread of vector-borne disease
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Arthropod parasites (specifically, insects and their relatives) are responsible for economically critical issues in human health, wildlife conservation, and livestock productivity. Because natural history collections are permanent repositories for past and present parasite specimens, these collections and their data can help address these significant societal challenges in human and animal health and safety. Natural history collections often contain specimens and ancillary materials that are completely unknown to the broader community, yet represent irreplaceable knowledge about organismal habitats, distributions, and parasite-host associations. Further, these collections yield information that can be used to model ecological processes and changes in species distributions, predict the future spread of human and animal disease, update taxonomy, and help identify under-represented parasite groups in urgent need of sampling and threatened parasite diversity in need of conservation. This project will provide digital records (i.e., specimen label data and images) of invaluable arthropod parasite collections to make research-ready baseline data accessible online, catalyzing new research and education initiatives. These newly digitized data will have immediate and long-lasting benefits for our understanding of organismal associations, biodiversity, and beyond. The Terrestrial Parasite Tracker Thematic Collection Network (TPT-TCN) will digitize over one million arthropod specimens representing species that are significant parasites and disease vectors of vertebrates in the United States. This digitization effort will integrate millions of vertebrate host records with vector and disease monitoring data shared by state and federal agency collaborators, creating a novel foundation for integrative, long-term research. This project is a collaboration of taxonomists and curators from vertebrate and invertebrate collections, as well as epidemiologists, ecologists, data-scientists, and biodiversity informatics specialists. This reach is further extended by the 26 collaborating research collections and other initiatives. This project will empower ongoing citizen science and public awareness campaigns with the tools to understand distribution changes of arthropod vectors and associated diseases due to environmental change and global movement. Public education initiatives include partnering with natural history museums to educate the public about parasites via science-focused lectures, exhibits, summer youth programs, informal presentations, and developing new online educational resources for teachers in underserved communities. All specimen images generated by this project will be used for the development of a rapid identification tool for parasites which will be made accessible through the internet and smartphone apps and shared with iDigBio (idigbio.org). The TPT-TCN will also develop and implement undergraduate teaching modules focused on data held in natural history collections. These modules will be disseminated to academic institutions across the United States and made available online. This award reflects NSF''s statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation''s intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.