Our Research

Welcome to the Weckstein Lab at the Academy of Natural Science of Drexel University!

Our research focuses on three main areas: 1) avian phylogenetics, comparative biology and evolutionary history, 2) biodiversity surveys of birds and their parasites and pathogens, and 3) coevolutionary history of birds and their parasites.

1) Avian phylogenetics, comparative biology, and evolutionary history— We have conducted a number of avian phylogenetic studies and have used these phylogenies to ask a variety questions about character evolution, mimicry, biogeographic history, and timing and rate of diversification. Although most of our work has focused on North American and Neotropical birds we have also worked on African taxa.

2) Biotic surveys of birds and their parasites— I am the lead principle investigator on a Biodiversity Discovery and Analysis Grant (DEB-1503804) funded by National Science Foundation entitled "Collaborative Research: Southern Amazonian Birds and Their Symbionts: Biodiversity and Endemicity of Parasites From the Most Diverse Avifauna on Earth." CoPIs on this include Alexandre Aleixo (Museu Paraense Emilío Goeldi), Vasyl Tkach (University of North Dakota), John Bates (Field Museum of Natural History), and we have also collaborated with a number of other researchers including Francisco Tiago Melo (Universidade Federal do Pará), Michel P. Valim (Museu de Zoologia da Universidade de São Paulo), Alan Fecchio (Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University), and Vitor Piacentini (Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University). We have also conducted similar surveys in other regions and are working on targeted surveys of avian parasites here in the northeastern United States.

3) Cophylogenetic history of birds and their parasites— Many studies of coevolutionary history have concentrated on cospeciation, a process involving the tandem speciation of a parasite or pathogen with its host. Thus cospeciation has been at the forefront of research aimed at understanding the mechanisms influencing parasite and pathogen evolution. However, most comparisons of parasite and host evolutionary history (phylogeny) are not completely congruent. This incongruence suggests that coevolutionary events, such as host-switching, play an important role in the evolution of host-parasite assemblages. Thus one important unsolved issue in studies of host-parasite coevolutionary history is how ecological and life history correlates of both hosts and their parasites affect the ability of a parasite to switch hosts.

Birds and their ectoparasitic chewing lice, are ideal for studying this departure from cospeciation because birds house an extremely high diversity of chewing lice. Chewing louse genera often differ in life history characteristics such as host-specificity, body form, and dispersal ability, making them ideal replicates for cophylogenetic analysis. By comparing the host evolutionary history (phylogeny) to the evolutionary histories of these different parasite lineages one can determine how parasite groups with different ecological, behavioral, and morphological characteristics respond to identical host diversification and speciation events. Our lab has worked on a range of bird ectoparasite projects ranging from phylogeographic studies of parasites aimed at reconstructing microevolutionary processes such as gene flow and dispersal to phylogenetic projects aimed at reconstructing deeper evolutionary history of avian ectoparasites.