By Abby Weingarten
Six New College students spent two years researching lizard malaria and, after intensive collaborative work, they finally published their findings in the Journal of North American Herpetology (JNAH) in July.
Entitled The Effect of Plasmodium Floridense on Relative Leukocyte Counts of Anolis Sagrei and A. Carolinensis in Florida, USA, the paper was the culmination of a 2018 group Independent Study Project (ISP) with New College Biology Professor Tiffany Doan, Ph.D.
The Novos—Lara Bessa, Erika Calle, Ryan Counsman, Nicole Ely, Benjamin LaFond and Luiza Loges—examined whether local lizards (anoles) suffered health effects due to malaria in Florida.
“The students worked very hard during their ISP with me, examining hundreds of slides to look for the presence of lizard malaria, and to count the various white blood cell (WBC) types found in the lizard blood,” Doan said. “Scientific publication can be a very long process, but the group persevered and we finally have a published paper. I’m very proud of the students for working so hard to share their research with the world.”
Doan explained that malaria actually originated in animals like lizards before evolving and spreading to other animals, humans included. Native green anoles and invasive brown anoles are commonly found in Florida and may be infected with the malarial parasite, Plasmodium floridense.
Unlike in humans, the strain of lizard malaria in Florida (which cannot infect people) does not kill—and may not even harm—the lizards. So the students conducted their study to determine whether or not malaria parasites make lizards sick.
“Because no studies have directly addressed health effects of the parasite on Florida anoles, we collected blood smears of infected and uninfected anoles from Central and Southwest Florida, and compared counts of the WBC types, some of which are indicative of the negative effects of infection and stress on the body,” the students wrote in the paper’s abstract.
The students discovered significant differences in WBC counts between infected and uninfected lizards in Central Florida but not in Southwest Florida. Central Florida anoles also had higher mean WBC counts than Southwest Florida anoles.
“Our project is the first to examine WBC effects of Plasmodium infection in anoles. It appears that infected anoles sustain some negative immunological effects, at least in Central Florida,” the students wrote. “The differences in regions may be caused by the fact that Central Florida anoles still are under continuous interspecific competition, whereas the Southwest Florida brown anoles are not (because of low populations of green anoles). Additional studies that address WBC levels related to Plasmodium infection are needed to tease out the health and fitness effects on the lizards of Florida.”
LaFond, who graduated from New College in May, said participating in the hands-on lizard research during the ISP with Doan was both exciting and eye-opening. He and his fellow students collected multiple lizards for their project and gathered blood samples from the creatures’ toes.
“Since the study was done during January, it was pretty cold out, so the lizards mostly stayed hidden from us to preserve energy to thermoregulate. That made for an interesting experience of searching for a few hours and only finding a couple of lizards (when, during the summer, you can just walk outside and find a dozen in a few minutes),” LaFond said. “The lab work, as you can imagine, was tedious, having to count thousands of blood cells a day. But it really reinforced the idea that this is something that I wanted to be doing, because who else would still be excited to look under a microscope after a month of doing that?”
LaFond is currently working toward a master’s degree in conservation medicine at Tufts University—in a program that investigates the intersection of human, environmental and animal health. The lizard research project at New College fueled his interest in the topics.
“Right now, I’m mostly interested in disease ecology in amphibian populations. I’m currently thinking about doing research on how sound pollution affects the immune system in native and invasive amphibian species, and how this might affect disease susceptibility in these species,” LaFond said. “And I’m interested specifically in the fungal pathogen, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), which is leading to a massive amphibian biodiversity crisis.”
Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.