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Public Lecture Series with Mark Siddall

The Bloodsucker Proxy: Terrestrial Leeches and Revolutionary New Techniques For Genetic Forest Sampling

Use of leeches in medicine has advanced beyond its thousands-year old Ayurvedic origins in bloodletting. Oddly, the last 200 years have seen leeches intersecting with numerous significant advances in medical sciences including clinical medicine, the invention of dialysis, reconstructive surgery and even microsurgery. Beyond mere medical utility, recent advances from Mark Siddall’s international field program has led to the development of leeches as a tool for studying biodiversity.

The arduous task of assessing animal diversity in the wild involves plenty of sweat and tears; to that his team has added blood with DNA. Specifically, by extracting iDNA from the digestive tract of leeches, they can determine which vertebrate animal the leech last fed upon. Most would agree that it sucks to be harassed by all of the voracious terrestrial leeches in Asian and Wallacean tropical forests. However, because of their number, Mark Siddall and his team at the Leech Lab at AMNH is sanguine about the prospects for more completely characterizing protected forest biodiversity without hunting, without trapping, and without the use of scat or hair samples. By genetically analyzing the last meal of some 750 leeches from Bangladesh, China and Cambodia, the iDNA technique outperformed more conventional methods like camera-trapping, especially as it concerned detecting small mammals.

Siddall is Curator of the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History. His research has focused on the diversity and evolutionary biology of a wide range of parasites, from single-celled microbes to leeches.He has led expeditions throughout the world, most recently including South Sudan, Cambodia and the Lower Amazon of Brazil. His work in the Sackler Institute of Comparative genomics ranges from sequencing the whole genome of bed bugs uncovering hemotoxic venom compounds in blood feeding animals, to leveraging iDNA as a measure of endangered animal diversity in protected tropical forests. He is a professor in the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the Museum, an adjunct professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology at Columbia University and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at City University of New York. In addition to over 150 peer reviewed publications, he is author of the whimsical book “Poison: Sinister species with deadly consequences”.

Siddall is a committed science communicator making frequent public program appearances at the Museum, at venues around New York City and more widely; even garnering recognition from the Entertainment Exchange of the National Academy of Sciences. He is curator of the Irma and Paul Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life and other exhibitions including The Power of Poison, Life at the Limits: Stories of Amazing Species, Picturing Science, Undersea Oasis and Countdown to Zero: Defeating Disease.

He received his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto in 1994, is a recipient of the Henry Baldwin Ward Medal from the American Society of Parasitologists and is a Fellow of The Explorers Club.

Date: Monday, April 30

Time: 6:00 pm Reception, 7:00 pm Lecture

Location: Club Headquarters, 46 E 70th Street, New York, NY, 10021

Member Ticket Price: $10

Guest Ticket Price: $25

Student Ticket Price: $5 with a valid student ID

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