By Mike Kinsella
The formula for successful field work is approximately one part expertise, one part local knowledge and two parts blind luck. This was amply illustrated a few years back when Vasyl Tkach in North Dakota e-mailed me in Montana to ask if I knew a good place to collect cottonmouth moccasins (Agkistrodon piscivorous). He needed specimens of a trematode, Travtrema tamiamiense, to supplement his molecular studies on the phylogeny of the family Plagiorchiidae. It so happened I knew the exact place, but that place was 3000 miles away in Gainesville, Florida, Luckily, I knew my old friend, Don Forrester, at the University of Florida would be happy to let us use his parasitology lab.
So, on a September day, Vasyl and I flew separately to Gainesville. The next morning, we were up before dawn to drive to the highway dike crossing Paynes Prairie State Park, a large freshwater marsh where I had done a lot of collecting in the 1970s. We walked along the edge of the marsh and within a few minutes, Vasyl leapt into the ditch and quickly emerged with a 4-foot long moccasin. Returning to Don’s lab, Vasyl examined the snake and found two dozen specimens of Travtrema along with what turned out to be an undescribed species of the nematode Capillaria. It was not yet 10 A.M. and we had reached our primary goal!
Next on Vasyl’s host wish list was the bowfin (Amia calva), a primitive fish known locally in Florida as a mudfish. We picked up some fishing gear and headed to the River Styx south of Paynes Prairie, but this time we had no success. So we stopped at a local fishing camp and there, by serendipity, we bumped into the author who had literally written the book (The Creek) (great read, by the way) on that area, J. T. Glisson. After sharing a bunch of stories, J.T. told us the best place for mudfish was the boat dock on the northern edge of Orange Lake. The day was running out on us but we fished and seined for an hour or so at the dock. Again- no luck.
That evening, I talked to another old friend and ex-parasitology student, Don Coyner, who now worked for the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission. Don volunteered the use of his departmental “shocker boat” to stun the fish. The next day I met him at the dock and helped put the boat into the water. Within a few feet of the dock, 4 bowfin and a Florida gar (Lepisosteus platyrhinchus) soon came rolling to the surface. The gar was an unexpected bonus and later that day Vasyl collected a new species of trematode from it, which we would later describe as Macroderoides minutus.
But we were not done yet. I knew from my earlier studies that rice rats (Oryzomys palustris) in the salt marsh near Cedar Key, 50 miles west of Gainesville, were loaded with microphallid and heterophyid trematodes. I had never found one that was uninfected. Borrowing some live traps from Don, Vasyl and I drove to the marsh. Along the way, he walked into another roadside swamp and came out in a few minutes with a second cottonmouth. Then we proceeded to Cedar Key and set out the traps.
The next morning, while Vasyl went through the bowfin for parasites, I drove back to Cedar Key and found two rice rats in the traps. As usual, there were dozens of microphallid trematodes of multiple species in their small intestines which Vasyl could add to his molecular database. But in the cecum was a surprise- a species of notocotylid trematode that I had never seen before. As it turned out, it was another new species that we later described as Notocotylus fosteri.
We had been in Florida for three days, had examined snakes, fish, and rats, and had discovered three parasites new to science. I had never experienced anything like it and probably will not again. Luck was certainly involved (meeting J.T.), as well as expertise (Vasyl’s) and local knowledge (mine) but it never would have happened without the cooperation of great colleagues (the two Dons).