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Several hundred specimens of parasitic worms donated to the Otago Museum

Several hundred specimens from over 60 known species of parasites have been donated to the Otago Museum by the University of Otago’s Evolutionary and Ecological Parasitology group.

In the last year, Dr Bronwen Presswell, a researcher at the University of Otago’s Evolutionary and Ecological Parasitology group, has been working with Jerusha Bennett, previously a Masters student with the Parasitology group, to collect and curate parasites from more than 200 birds, many of which were kindly provided by the Dunedin Wildlife Hospital.

Dr Presswell says, “The collection comprises several hundred preserved specimens from marine and freshwater habitats and there are also undescribed species and many that have never been reported from New Zealand.

“The unique thing about this collection is that it will be complete with DNA sequences, written literature, photographs and field notes. The data is presented digitally in a way that can be entered directly into the Museum’s database.”

Otago Museum’s Research Officer and parasitologist, Ms Anusha Beer says, “These donations are a result of strengthening relationships with the University of Otago’s Parasitology lab, and the recent appointment of Dr Presswell as an Honorary Curator at the Museum.

“The donation includes some fascinating species. There is a fluke that lives under the eyelid of a gull and sheds its eggs in the tears of the bird. There is a 10 cm hairworm that invades its insect host and compels it to commit suicide by drowning itself, and a tapeworm so large that it can exceed the weight of its fish host.”

Ms Beer adds, “Unfortunately, parasites get overlooked due to their habitation within other animals. Nevertheless, they form a large part of the region’s biodiversity, and are important in shaping community structures and ecological interaction within a region – we cannot afford to overlook them.

“It is expected that over 50% of parasites may become extinct without ever being discovered. Given New Zealand’s isolated geographical location, many parasitic species found here are unique, which is why it’s even more important to preserve these well-curated specimens of local parasites.”

The specimens added to the Otago Museum collection will be stored in the Museum’s Natural Science collection and can be accessed by future researchers studying the taxonomy and ecology of parasitic worms for a better understanding of our biodiversity and environment.