My Iceland Research


Christina Anaya, Iceland, Ecology

Freshwater and Marine Snails as Parasite Biodiversity Indicators in Iceland.

Parasites are one of the most diverse and understudied groups of organisms on the planet, with multiple species inhabiting the same host. It is well known that parasites play a variety of important roles including their influence on host communities, populations, and food security for humans. Unfortunately, the biodiversity of parasites is largely understudied despite current estimates that more than 50% of all plant and animal species demonstrate a life cycle stage that is parasitic. Recent studies indicate that global warming can affect parasite biodiversity. With my Fulbright/National Science Foundation Arctic Research Award, my objective is to conduct a novel investigation into the biodiversity of parasites and their association with aquatic and marine snails that act as intermediate or dead-end (no further development of parasite) hosts in Iceland. Through the collaboration of researchers at Hólar University College, this research will provide parasite presence and distribution data in a subarctic region.

According to the 2014 Arctic Biodiversity Assessment (ABA), baseline and long-term data on parasite diversity is lacking in Arctic regions such as Iceland. As a result, the impact of parasites on ecosystem health due to climate change and their consequences to the people that live there are not well understood. Iceland is located at the interface of temperate and Arctic regions making it a unique area for study because it is more susceptible to perturbations in temperatures due to its small size and location compared to other northern landmasses. Iceland is also the land of fire and ice where unique geothermal activities create a variety of warm and cold habitats where parasites can colonize.

     The ABA recommends that parasite communities in Arctic regions be evaluated to create baseline data of the current state of parasite diversity. With this data, changes in distribution over time can be monitored. Therefore, the goals of my research deal with the documentation and discovery of parasite diversity in Iceland for which comparatively little data is available. One reason for this lack of data is that it takes a considerable amount of time and expertise to collect and examine various groups of hosts and their parasites. However, in freshwater and marine ecosystems, snails are an excellent indicator for parasite diversity because they serve as hosts in the life cycles of all major groups of parasites of vertebrates and some invertebrates. For example, of the nearly 25,000 species of trematodes (flukes), all use a snail as an intermediate host in their life cycles. Therefore, using snails to examine parasite diversity provides important information for both snails and the parasites of vertebrate hosts such as fish, birds, and mammals (food staples of some cultures). Sampling vertebrate hosts for parasites is more difficult due to the time, costs, and permits involved. Using snails as indicator hosts removes the obstacles and complexity involved in sampling vertebrates and allows rapid assessment of parasite diversity in the region. My research in Iceland is a unique investigation that can be used in future hypothesis testing of how climate change will affect biodiversity of parasites and their hosts. This research, in collaboration with Dr. Bjarni Kristjánsson at Hólar University College, emulates the fundamental principles that the Fulbright program and cultural exchange strive to accomplish.

Beginning in September 2017, I will sample six freshwater streams and six pond habitats for 50 individuals of the common species of freshwater snails in four regions (northern, southern, eastern and western) of Iceland (total = 2400 snails). Additionally, marine snails will be sampled from 10 locations along the coast in the same regions (total = 500 snails). Each region’s collection and analyses will be conducted within 50 days to complete the objectives in my one-year visit. In the laboratory, I will identify, process, and examine snails for parasites. Photos of all snail hosts, parasite stages, and fixed worms will be saved for museum vouchers and/or university collections. I will compare diversity and host-parasite associations of the collected samples by region using standard ecological statistical analyses and indices. I expect to 1) describe novel snail-parasite associations in Iceland; and 2) determine parasite distribution and abundance in freshwater and marine systems throughout the four regions that will be sampled. For the first time, this will provide a snapshot of the distribution of parasites that use snails throughout Iceland to provide a foundation for Arctic biodiversity studies.

Data will be shared throughout the scientific community in several ways. Empirical data collected will be submitted to peer-reviewed scientific journals including those that focus on climate change in Arctic regions, ecology, and parasitology. Data reported can also be used as a foundation for future research on climatological and parasitological studies in Iceland and other Arctic regions. This will be in cooperation with my affiliate Dr. Bjarni Kristjánsson but I will also contact Iceland’s parasitologists including Dr. Árni Kristmundsson. My research will be shared at local universities in Iceland during my stay and at regional, national, and international conferences upon my return to the U.S.

My experience makes me the perfect researcher to carry out this project because, throughout my academic career, my research has focused on invertebrate systems that include parasites, insects, and their interactions. At Oklahoma State University, my coursework emphasizes invertebrate and parasite systems. Our lab studies a diverse group of parasites that use snails as dead-end or intermediate hosts. We examine several phyla including trematodes, nematodes, nematomorphs, and acanthocephalans that use snail hosts. A portion of the Iceland data will be incorporated into my dissertation by providing comparative data.

My Fulbright scholarship offers a unique opportunity to establish international collaborations that strengthens my professional career. As a field biologist, I have developed a strong connection to nature and conservation issues. Therefore, studying parasites in Iceland will allow me to contribute to climate change data that I will carry over to my professional career in academia as a researcher and teacher at a major university. The opportunity to demonstrate my abilities to collaborate, communicate, and conduct research in Iceland will make me a more competitive applicant to achieve this goal. In the future, I will continue biodiversity studies in Iceland so that I can determine the changes that occur in parasite diversity and community structure over time and in the face of global warming. I will engage students at Hólar in my research through mentorship and help students gain research skills to be more competitive. Not only will my research benefit from their help, but also I will personally benefit from the experience of working with students of another culture. I will also be seeking opportunities to volunteer at various venues such as the Iceland SEEDS volunteer program that emphasizes international collaboration while working on designated projects around Iceland. Volunteer work is a passion that I actively engage in. I believe it is my civic duty to give back to the community but also as a student, I believe I am a steward to my university and my community. As a Fulbright fellow, I can expand this to be a steward for my country.