Entomologist to lead NSF-supported study of water mites in North America

Aug. 22, 2011

Contact Information:
Ashley Dowling, Department of Entomology
479-575-2482 / adowling@uark.edu

Dave Edmark, Division of Agriculture Communication Services
479-575-5647 / dedmark@uark.edu

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Ashley DowlingFAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – A University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture entomologist will lead a five-year project to conduct an in-depth study of the diversity of water mites in North America. Under a National Science Foundation grant of $725,557, Assistant Professor Ashley Dowling will supervise a team that will conduct a comprehensive study on the diversity and evolutionary biology of North American water mites in the family Torrenticolidae. The study will focus on the collection and description of hundreds of species new to science and will investigate the evolutionary history of the group using DNA and morphological data.

"We want to make water mites, and mites in general, more mainstream and show people that mites are major players in all ecological systems," Dowling said. The NSF grant will also support the training of two doctoral students in water mite systematics. Dowling sees an urgent need to develop new expertise in this field because nearly all current water mite specialists in North America are retired or nearing retirement. He said this project would start the training of the next generations of specialists in the field.

Because little is known about water mite diversity, they have rarely been included in freshwater biodiversity inventories, biogeographic studies, assessments of water quality or evaluations of conservation. This project seeks to change that situation, Dowling said.

"Comprehensive knowledge of torrenticolid water mites, the most abundant and commonly encountered water mite family in North American streams, and the online interactive tools that we will develop will allow the use of these mites in studies focusing on aquatic community dynamics, biodiversity, biogeography and water quality biomonitoring, all of which could have impacts on conservation status and trends in freshwater habitats," Dowling said.

Dowling is currently developing a research program in mite systematics that emphasizes mite biodiversity in the Ozarks. He has also worked on other mite diversity studies and is one of only a few mite systematists in the United States training new experts in the field.

Andrea Radwell, a researcher who focuses on water mite diversity in the Ozarks and Appalachians, is also a key researcher in the project. In addition to training students, she will supervise the project's outreach efforts by developing workshops and presentations in Missouri and Arkansas and providing training and educational materials about water mites to National Park Service personnel to be shared with the visiting public.

Ian Smith, principal research scientist at the Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes in Ottawa, is also collaborating on the project. Smith oversees a collection of more than 2 million water mite specimens and has 40 years of experience in water mite systematics. He will make the collection available to the project's research personnel. Smith noted that without the program being built in the NSF grant, "when I retire there will be no experienced researchers available to provide training to a new generation of experts in water mite taxonomy."

Dowling said the project will revitalize water mite taxonomy and the field of acarology, the study of mites and ticks. "For the first time, we will have comprehensive knowledge about a diverse and ubiquitous group of North American water mites, which will open up this family to both evolutionary and ecological studies," he said.

In addition to studying the specimens available in the Canadian collection, the research team will gather new collections from areas of North America that are expected to hold diverse populations of water mites. Collections will be gathered during expeditions to Rocky Mountain areas in Montana, Idaho and Alberta; watersheds in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Yukon Territory and Alaska region and the Florida/southern Georgia area.

"Students will gain important experience in conducting expeditions and water mite collection," Dowling said. "They will also learn to recognize all major water mite groups while sorting through the collected samples in the field and while back in the research lab in Arkansas, which will supplement the training they will receive in water mite diversity on training trips to the Canadian National Collection."

Dowling added that the information from the project must be disseminated outside the scientific community and delivered to the general public and students at all educational levels. "We expect our project to raise the level of awareness of the importance of this extraordinary group of organisms and demonstrate that modern techniques are available to make their study both interesting and worthwhile," he said