Systematics, Coevolution, and Microbial Community Structure of Bat Fleas (Siphonaptera: Ischnopsyllidae)
Katharina Dittmar De La Cruz Principal Investigator
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Bats constitute nearly 25% of the diversity of all mammals. They have a global distribution, and are key players in diverse ecosystems. Like any other mammal, they are exposed to, and suffer from a range of parasites. Among these parasites are a group of bloodsucking insects - the bat fleas. Contrary to many other fleas, they are uniquely adapted to bats. Currently, even basic knowledge about these parasites is scarce. This grant sets out to remedy this problem by pursuing the following important goals: 1) for the first time comprehensive information about the development, diversity, global distribution, host association, and ecology of these fleas will be gathered, 2) the evolutionary history of bat fleas and the timing of their diversification will be explored, in the context of parallel evolution with their hosts, and 3) the previously unknown microbial diversity of bat fleas will be studied and linked across different parasite developmental stages and ecosystems, characterizing beneficial as well as potentially pathogenic bacteria. <br/><br/>The results of these interdisciplinary studies will benefit a wide range of researchers (e.g. systematists, microbiologists, conservation biologists, parasitologists, epidemiologists). The proposed studies will enhance current knowledge about symbiosis, parasitism, co-evolution, and disease ecology, and will form the foundation for further research in these fields. This project will provide educational opportunities for graduate and undergraduate student training in important research areas, such as parasitology, metagenomics and phylogenetics. Minority undergraduates will be especially recruited, and academic success of these students will be monitored by a novel mentoring approach, called "Research in Pairs". This approach centers on teaching students the value of ethics, communication, and mentoring while they are pursuing their own research projects.