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August 26, 2011

ULM student research contributes to unusual parasite findings in Colombia

Most Louisianans are familiar with ticks – those pesky, blood-sucking arachnids that thrive in humid environments, particularly wooded or grassy areas. New evidence is emerging, however, indicating that ticks can thrive on a reptile whose entire life is spent in or near the water.

For six weeks this summer, Lisa Brown, 25, a graduate student of biology at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, studied the biogeographic phenomenon at two field sites, including a small tropical island off the Pacific coast of Colombia, South America, where an aquatic turtle of the genus  Rhinoclemmys, carried the parasite.

"Leeches typically fill that niche on aquatic turtles, but there are no leeches on the island," Brown explained. "I just thought it seemed interesting and really bizarre. I started doing research to see if anything had been documented about it, and I only found a couple of papers that described it in certain mammals. I got more excited because it seemed like a really unique project to take on."

She says the ticks may have gills enabling them to breathe under water and presented her findings at the Ninth Annual Symposium on the Conservation and Biology of Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles, Aug. 14-17, the joint annual meeting of the Turtle Survival Alliance and the IUCN Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group.

In an unusual twist, on the Colombian mainland the same species of turtle is virtually devoid of the ticks, and instead boasts a large number of leeches, according to Brown. Brown finished her undergraduate studies at the University of Texas at Tyler and is scheduled to graduate ULM in May 2012.

Dr. John L. Carr, a professor of biology at ULM, said Brown's research interest in parasites was a great way to involve her in the turtle research in Colombia that Carr has been collaborating on with colleague, Dr. Alan Giraldo, of the Universidad del Valle, for the last several years.

"We worked on three manuscripts and she greatly contributed to our work," said Carr. "I was happy to provide her this unique opportunity to study and travel in South America. I think she has a bright future ahead of her as a biologist."

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