Results of Surveys of Taxonomic Expertise in Parasitology in Canada and of Interest in National Faunal Projects on Parasites in Canada

Dr. Allen W. Shostak

Parasite Module Steering Committee

March, 1997


In 1994 the Parasite Module Steering Committee (PMSC) decided to produce an updated revision of the Directory of Parasitologists in Canada, first published in 1991. The timing coincided with distribution of the Draft Canadian Biodiversity Strategy for Discussion, prepared by the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Biodiversity Working Group. Although the document was still in draft form, the PMSC considered that one component of a Canadian Biodiversity Strategy would likely be some sort of gap analysis to identify gaps in knowledge of various taxa, and gaps in taxonomic expertise in various taxa. It was decided that the survey of parasitologists to update the Directory would be combined with a survey to assess our knowledge of parasite taxa in Canada, the taxonomic expertise that we possess, and the interest among parasitologists in conducting individual or collaborative research that would contribute to our knowledge of the parasite fauna of Canada.

A three-part survey was prepared during late 1994. Section I (Directory of Parasitologists Update) requested information to update the Directory. Section II (National Faunal Projects Initiative) requested information on the individual's willingness to participate in national-scale projects on Canada'a parasite fauna. Section III (Survey of Taxonomic Expertise) requested individuals with taxonomic interests to identify their areas of expertise, their assessment of current knowledge of Canada'a parasite fauna, their ability to provide identification services, and a summary of the taxonomic training available to graduate students at their institution. As the survey was being prepared, a series of regional coordinators compiled a list of all individuals in their regions who might be involved in parasitological study. The intention was to include as many parasitologists as possible, however broadly defined, in the Directory and the Survey. A total of 279 individuals was sent a copy of the survey in January, 1995. Recipients were asked to respond to the survey and also to pass on a copy of it to any of their colleagues who might not have received one. One hundred and one individuals responded to the survey by May, 1995. Of this total, 101 responded to Part I, 73 responded to Part II, and 35 responded to Part III.

Results of Section I were compiled by Dr. Barbara MacKinnon and the Second Edition of the Directory was published in 1996. I prepared a preliminary summary of results of Section III and submitted it in 1996 to the Chair of the PMSC. This document contains the full survey results from Sections II and III, and my interpretation of those results. The original surveys are maintained in the Archives of the Parasitology Section, Canadian Society of Zoologists.


Detailed results are provided in the Appendix, pages 1-8. The Appendix is a copy of the Survey, with a tabulated summary of results for each question added in bold-face type. Results are presented either as (i) number of individuals responding to a question or sub-question, relative to the number of individuals responding to the next higher level question, or (ii) my paraphrasing of comments made by the respondents to questions requesting their comments. Some questions permitted multiple answers, and some individuals also responded to multiple sections where only one response was requested. No attempt was made to second-guess respondents motives and all responses are therefore tabulated, but totals may not agree.


Section II- National Faunal Projects Initiative

This part was responded to by 73 of the 101 persons who returned surveys. Anonymous responses were permitted, but 71 chose to identify themselves. Respondents included faculty, staff and students at universities and colleges, and staff at government research centres.

Question 1 assessed the extent of interest in participating in large-scale collaborative studies of the parasite fauna of Canada.

About 25% of respondents indicated that they were not interested under any circumstances. It is possible that the 28 respondents to the Directory survey who did not respond to this part of the survey also had no major interest in faunistic studies (and so did not want to be bothered with this part of the survey), so it may be that as many as 45% respondents had no interest. The single most frequent reason given by respondents not interested was that faunistic studies were irrelevant to their research field, while the remaining responses indicated a variety of other reasons. No responses indicated reservations about the scientific merit of a large-scale collaborative project.

About 35% of respondents indicated they would be interested in collaborations so long as it did not require changes to their current research programs. Of these, 60% of these might be interested as a means of obtaining samples for their own taxonomic studies, and while many would become involved only if no strings were attached, many would be willing to exchange in- kind work to obtain those specimens. In contrast, 40% might be interested as a means of acquiring samples for their non-faunistic research, and most would become involved only if there were no strings attached. Few would be willing to reimburse costs for obtaining those samples, or to exchange work in kind for them. Various other reasons that might engender interest were also offered; several of them mentioned financial or equipment concerns.

Over 50% of respondents indicated interest in collaborations even if changes to their normal research activities were required. Individuals were overwhelmingly (97%) in favor of adopting a standardized methodology even if it was different than the one they normally use. A majority (72%) would consider travelling to a distant field site to participate. Over 87% would consider conducting a regional replicate of a larger-scale, integrated project. About 80% would participate in long-term projects that might not produce publications for several years, but 20% would require that publications be generated within a few years. A large proportion (78%) also indicated a willingness to participate to a limited extent even in projects that might not lead to publication. Only a minority (45%) would be willing to participate if they had to bear expenses out of their existing research grants; others would participate only if funding was provided. A large number of the comments offered also indicated financial concerns.

Question 2 assessed the types of involvement preferred by respondents who indicated an interest in a national faunal parasite project.

The response chosen most frequently was to study all parasites in a particular type of host, followed by a subset of parasites in a particular type of host or particular taxa in any type of host, with particular taxa in particular types of host being the least frequently chosen. Many respondents indicated multiple preferences. Comments as to the types of hosts or parasites that would be of interest ranged from particular species to broad taxa.

Question 3 asked for suggestions for project themes that might be considered by PMSC. Interestingly, while responses to questions 1 and 2 suggested considerable enthusiasm for large- scale, collaborative studies, fewer than 20% of respondents had specific suggestions for suitable projects.

Section III- Survey of Taxonomic Expertise

This part was responded to by 35 of the 101 persons who returned surveys. Anonymous responses were permitted, but 34 chose to identify themselves. Respondents included faculty, staff and students at universities and colleges, and staff at government research centres.

Part A, Questions 1 & 2 asked respondents to identify taxa which they considered themselves to have taxonomic expertise, and for those taxa to provide a subjective assessment of the number of species in Canada already described, relative to the number of species that were probably present. Respondents were free to identify their taxa of expertise at any level they felt appropriate.

All but one respondent to Section III identified taxa for which they considered themselves to possess expertise, and all but one of those provided an estimate of described species. Responses varied widely in scope, from expertise in all or most of the major taxa of parasites, to expertise only in one or a few genera or families. Most respondents indicated expertise in more than one taxon, and often those taxa were quite distantly related. The 33 respondents indicated expertise in 81 taxa.

I summarized data in two ways. First, I separated out each taxon and organized them according to Phylum and Class, or Class and Order, where appropriate, and tabulated these along with the respondents' estimates of described species (Appendix, Pages 4-6). There were few cases where different respondents identified themselves as experts on the same taxon. Where they did, estimates of described species were usually similar (Mallophaga; <25%, 25-50%; Siphonaptera: 50-75%, 75-100%; Myxosporea: 25-50%, 50-75%) but in one case were very different (Nematoda: <25%, 25-50%, 75-100%). In general, individuals claiming expertise at higher (more general) taxonomic ranks tended to estimate that the parasite fauna in those categories was more poorly known (Table 1), while individuals claiming expertise only at lower taxonomic ranks (more specific) estimated that those taxa were more well known, although at all levels, many groups are considered to be poorly known, with less than 50% of species described (Table 1).

A second method of summarizing the data was to list the range of taxa each respondent considered themselves to be expert in (Appendix, Page 6). Clearly, some individuals specialize in restricted taxonomic groups, others in a diverse array of restricted taxonomic groups, and only a few consider themselves expert in several, broad taxonomic groupings of parasites.

Table 1. Estimates of species described/species present relative to the level of expertise stated by respondent.

Species described/species present (No. responses)

Level of Expertise (more general to more specific):





Multiple Phylum/Class





Parasite Phylum/Class





Parasite Class/Order or Parasite Phylum/Class (in some hosts only)




















Two specific questions to be asked of the data (Appendix) are: (i) what is the breadth of expertise in various taxonomic groups among respondents, and (ii) for groups with expertise, how well is the fauna known? Breadth of expertise would seem to be greatest for parasitic insects and phasmidean nematodes. Expertise in several groups (crustaceans, arachnids, acanthocephalans, monogeneans, cestodes, and cnidarians) is limited. Expertise in digeneans and protozoans seems intermediate in breadth. Many respondents qualified their expertise to certain host groups; most of these were aquatic hosts, either freshwater or marine. Within the groups for which expertise exists, the arthropods, cestodes, digeneans, monogeneans and acanthocephalans are reasonably well known (most groups >50%), the cnidarians, nematodes, and nematomorphs are poorly to moderately well known (most groups > 25%), and the protozoans are poorly known (most groups <50%).

Part A, Question 3 asked respondents to identify training in parasite taxonomy available to graduate students in their departments.

About 40% of respondents to Section III provided information here. Many of the non- respondents noted that they were from a research institute or laboratory that did not normally deal with graduate students. Fewer than 35% indicated that courses dealing primarily with systematics were available, and about 50% indicated that principles of taxonomy and systematics (either general, or of parasites only) was a key component of one or more courses in their department. Over 90% indicated that training in taxonomic principles and methods was provided to students on an individual basis is required. About 65% reported that their department encourages thesis projects in which parasite taxonomy would be a significant component.

Part B asked respondents to indicate the conditions under which they would become involved in taxonomic research projects.

Question 1 About 80% of respondents indicated that they would be willing to provide specimen identification services. Over 80% of those would do so for no charge, but most would do so only if the number of identifications was relatively small (fewer than 30 specimens annually), and some would only provide confirmations on previously identified material. About 20% would identify material for a fee. When asked to estimate the fee they would charge, responses varied from token amounts ($1-2) to substantial sums ($50-200 per specimen). About 20% of respondents also indicated they would be willing to identify material in their area of expertise in exchange for being able to submit some of their material to outside experts. Many respondents offered additional written comments indicating that they would be willing to provide identification services in exchange for other perks, such as co-authorship, retention of material, provision of necessary equipment and even if it would encourage others to participate. Several respondents indicated a willingness to help but that time constraints and employment uncertainty prevented a commitment.

Question 2 asked whether respondents would provide identification services if they could use the material for their own taxonomic studies.

This option appealed to about 60% of respondents. Over 75% of them would like to obtain material suitable for species descriptions or redescriptions, 50% would like material for various types of morphometric studies, and 35% would like to obtain material for phylogenetic studies.

Question 3 asked whether individuals would actively participate in taxonomic studies in their area of expertise as part of a National Faunal Project.

This option appealed to over 70% of respondents. Similar proportions to those in Question 2 would be interested in species descriptions, morphometric studies, and phylogenetic analysis. Respondents from government laboratories indicated that such projects, however interesting, would have to fit in with government and laboratory priorities.


Survey Limitations

It is important to recognize the survey was responded to only by about one-third of its recipients. It is likely that many of the recipients did not respond because they may work on parasites but not consider themselves to be parasitologists. However, because most respondents chose to identify themselves it is clear that many individuals who possess taxonomic expertise and/or are actively involved in studies of Canada's natural parasite fauna, may have responded to the Directory update but did not respond to Sections II and III of the survey. Their reasons for not responding are their own, but perhaps a clue can be found among the comments given by those who did respond: financial constraints, lack of time for any but their existing projects, and impending retirement or uncertainty about their positions were frequently cited. Thus, the survey is biased towards the opinions of those who are interested (or in a position to be involved) in collaborative studies of Canada's parasite fauna.

As with any survey, the results depend on the context in which the survey was conducted, the wording of questions, and the way in which the results are compiled and interpreted. I take responsibility for all. The reader is cautioned that while I have attempted to be objective in the following discussion, no doubt some of my personal views will creep in and the reader is encouraged to examine my conclusions with respect to the hard survey data provided and their own experience.

Expertise gap analysis

The expertise gap analysis is limited by the fact that it is based on survey respondents only. Actual expertise may be much more extensive.

Results from respondents suggest that there are relatively few broadly-based taxonomic experts on the Canadian parasite fauna, but many of those individuals are in or approaching retirement. Much of the remaining expertise lies in individuals that specialize in smaller taxa, or in taxa occurring only in certain groups of hosts. It would appear that most of the "host-specific" taxonomic expertise occurs for aquatic hosts and economically-important hosts.

It would seem that there is considerable strength of taxonomic expertise within Canada for the parasitic Nematoda and Insecta, and the apicomplexan protozoans. Expertise in the Platyhelminthes and Acanthocephala is more limited.

There may be cause for concern over the extent of our taxonomic expertise in the future. Formal courses providing training opportunities in parasite taxonomy (or even taxonomy in general) appear limited in availability. Most training seems to be passed down from supervisor to student. As the current generation of senior parasitologists retires the opportunities for such individual training may also decrease.

Parasite gap analysis

The parasite gap analysis is limited by the fact that it is based on survey respondents only. There are many taxa which have been studied extensively but for which no one in the survey identified themselves as an expert, so the completeness of our knowledge of those groups cannot be assessed here. If results from the limited taxonomic scope represented in the survey responses is considered to be representative for other taxa, then I believe it would be fair to state that gaps exist in our knowledge of all parasite groups in Canada, but that for some groups our knowledge is much poorer than others.

A survey of this type was perhaps a good starting point for a gap analysis by indicating that for all major taxonomic groups our knowledge of the parasite species present in Canada is incomplete. However, a more detailed analysis employing a different methodology would definitely be required prior to initiating projects to fill those gaps.

Faunal project interest

It seems that the idea of participating in large-scale, collaborative national faunal projects is an appealing one. Although there is a tremendous amount of interest in participating, finances may be an obstacle to many interested individuals. One problem may be in finding individuals to identify suitable projects, initiate and coordinate them. Far more respondents seemed eager to participate in existing projects, than to suggest ones of their own. These potential participants clearly indicated a general interest in this type of collaborative project, and seemed willing to bend their personal research priorities somewhat if necessary to participate in the project.

One concern that always exists in a large scale project is in obtaining the taxonomic expertise to deal with identification of the large amount of specimens that will be accumulated. It is clear that projects of this type cannot rely on volunteers to identify the material, because overwhelmingly the individuals who said they could provide free identifications would do so only in limited quantities. The high costs estimated by other individuals who would provide identifications for a fee would make this alternative prohibitive for large quantities of specimens. Based on the survey results, the most feasible route to identify material collected in a large scale study would be to directly involve taxonomists already studying the particular groups of parasites being collected. A limitation of this route is that projects would have to be carefully chosen, such that most of the material collected would be of current research interest to one or more taxonomists.

General comments

Responses to the survey suggested the presence of substantial gaps in our knowledge of Canada's parasite fauna, and present or future gaps in the taxonomic expertise needed to study the parasite fauna. However, there seemed to be abundant good-will expressed in the survey towards solutions such as National Faunal Projects. Properly formulated project proposals should have little trouble in assembling teams of competent and interested participants.