When most people remember they left a bird in the freezer at home, they’re referring to poultry slated for that night’s dinner. When that thought occurred to Diana Outlaw as she sat in Harned Hall, she was remembering birds found dead and donated by area residents to help with her research.
Down the hall from the Mississippi State associate professor’s office, third-year biological sciences graduate student Jessica Aycock has her own collection in a different freezer.
“We’re going out and catching mosquitoes every two weeks,” the Long Beach native said. “Our freezer is pretty full of insects.”
Although birds and mosquitoes are strange things to store in a freezer, Outlaw and her students are using the creatures to gain new insights into malaria parasites and their emergence in new species.
The research is funded by an $161,147 grant from the National Institutes of Health’s Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
In addition to the frozen specimens, Outlaw and her students regularly catch birds in mist nets, draw blood samples and then release the birds, unharmed, back into the wild. If they do this for many years, the team can study the blood samples to see which malaria parasites become more or less prominent in local birds over time.
The researchers have found local birds commonly carry malaria parasites, but not the kind that are transmittable to humans. The parasites’ genome sequencing could help the researchers identify genes that are adaptive in host switching, which could have implications for humans and other animals.
“There’s so much we don’t know about what enables these parasites to get into different hosts,” Outlaw said. “We’re hoping that we can put together a better understanding of how these malaria parasites switch hosts and what malaria parasites we need to be on the lookout for.”
Haley Bodden, a second-year master’s student from Moss Point, assists Outlaw in screening birds for malaria parasites. In addition to the birds they catch on campus and those found by area residents, the researchers are also able to obtain tissue samples from birds all over America.
Because Outlaw has a salvage permit, she can preserve and screen recently deceased birds, maintaining the birds’ “priceless” information.
“It’s been great to do something and see the outcomes as soon as you do it,” Bodden said. “We see these birds fly into the net and then we get to analyze them and see what we have. As it turns out, there are a lot of birds in the sky with malaria–lots more than you would think.”
Outlaw was originally trained as an ornithologist, but a postdoctoral appointment working with a pioneering scientist in the field of avian malaria parasite research set her on her current path. Also a molecular systematist, Outlaw quickly realized there are still many unanswered questions about the relationship between the agents transmitting the parasites and their hosts.
As one of the primary transmitters of malaria parasites, mosquitoes provide additional insight into their spread. Including Aycock’s frozen bugs, the research team has collected well over 40,000 mosquitoes using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention light traps with carbon dioxide. Once she has the mosquitoes and other insects in the lab, she pools them into bins—roughly 10 at a time—to gather enough DNA to see which malaria parasites they are transmitting. She will present her research on blood meals at the Entomological Society of America’s conference in November.
“I like identifying the insects,” Aycock said. “I came into this focused on diseases, but I ended up really liking the entomology side. My research will actually become the base of a much bigger project on transmission cycles, so it’s cool to see what will become of the data I obtain.”
Among the most interesting discoveries, Outlaw said, is evidence of adaptive gene evolution in major host switches in malaria parasites. She said her team also regularly discovers interesting items in both vertebrates and mosquitoes, showcasing the ever growing diversity of malaria parasites.
In addition to collaborating with Mississippi State researchers in other fields, Outlaw works with Susan Perkins of the American Museum of Natural History to conduct genomic research. Colleagues in Sweden are assisting with the malaria parasite genome sequencing.
Moving forward, Outlaw said she hopes to expand upon the current project, which is primarily a taxonomic endeavor, to explore which genes are involved in host switching and how bird immune systems respond to parasites.
“It’s so much fun to do my research and interact with graduate and undergraduate students. I get to help make them passionate about science,” Outlaw said. “First, the students get excited about catching birds. That’s the draw, that’s how you lure them in. Then, I’ve had a few that realize just how interesting the mosquitoes are.”
With nearly 1,000 species that call North America home, birds rate as one of the most common types of wildlife encountered in the United States. Unfortunately for the feathered population, those encounters don’t always end well.
Pets, cars, buildings and other human interference can disrupt the wild animals’ lives leading to injury, loss of habitat or even death. While much of this is as unintentional as it is unavoidable, Dr. Mandy Kohler, a clinical instructor with the Mississippi State College of Veterinary Medicine, says there are things people can do to help their neighborhood flyers.
A volunteer wildlife veterinarian and rehabilitator, Kohler frequently receives calls about young birds found on the ground.
“Most of the calls I get are for fledglings or nestlings that have fallen out of the nest,” Kohler said. “People see them on the ground and think they’re helpless, and to an extent they are, but they’re also usually fine.”
Kohler explained that if the bird is uninjured, the best solution is to return it to the nest—if it is intact and not in immediate danger from cats or other predators. If the nest is damaged, in an unknown location or in danger, she says it’s best to:
• Get a basket or box with small holes in the bottom and line it with soft materials like leaf litter
• Gently place the young bird in the box and place it in a shrub or other elevated location near where the bird was found
“Birds are tenacious parents,” Kohler explained. “If they’re still around, they will hear the baby and continue to care for it. And birds mature fast. Within a few days, maybe a week, it will probably be ready to leave the nest.”
As for the old wives’ tale that touching a bird leaves behind a human smell that turns other birds away—there’s no truth to it.
“Except for vultures and other scavengers, birds have a terrible sense of smell,” Kohler explained. “But you don’t want to handle them a lot, just because you don’t want them to become habituated to humans.”
After securing the young bird, Kohler suggests watching the area to make sure the parents do return. If they don’t, or if the nest—either original or makeshift—appears to still be in danger, she recommends calling a wildlife rehabilitator who can collect the bird and hand raise it until it can be safely released into the wild.