IUPUI biologist gets National Geographic Society grant to research flies as 'environmental drones'

INDIANAPOLIS -- A single bug could be a messenger for researchers who are studying changing animal populations in a region, according to IUPUI biologist Christine Picard.

Picard is studying how blow flies can be 'environmental drones' as they fly around collecting information about animals that have died, animals that are still living and the diversity of animals in an environment. Blow flies collect this data as they feed on remains of vertebrate animals as well as animal feces.

"We argue that this could be a really quick-and-easy way to get an overview of what an environment looks like," Picard said.

This research caught the attention of the National Geographic Society, which awarded Picard a grant for her project "Environmental Drones: Blow flies as indicators of vertebrate diversity and abundance."

Picard's previous research allows her lab to identify when the blow flies consume animal fecal matter versus animal tissue and what animal it's from.

The research team will collect samples in Yellowstone National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park to validate this model. These blow flies, species Phormia regina, will be genetically and chemically analyzed to determine how many animals -- and which species -- are in the park. Since animal diversity is well-documented in these parks, researchers can compare data from the blow fly analysis to these data sets.

Picard hopes to develop a model that she and other scientists can use for vertebrate animal diversity surveys, conservation studies, and other ecological and ecosystem studies.

"With this project, we can potentially have a new, more efficient way of determining the biodiversity in a given area as researchers are trying to track these changes given climate change and human encroachment on different environments," Picard said. "Support from National Geographic is particularly exciting, and I think it fits well with what the organization likes to do as a whole."

The National Geographic Society has had a lasting impact on Picard. Growing up, her grandfather and father collected its magazine, acquiring nearly every issue from 1913 to today. Picard would pore over issues of National Geographic as reference material for school projects.

"National Geographic had this impact on me at a very early age in terms of being able to see what the world looks like and the associated science and nature," Picard said.

In addition to Picard, grant project team members include William P. Gilhooly III,  associate professor of earth sciences, and Nicholas Manicke, assistant professor of chemistry, both in the School of Science at IUPUI; and Aniruddha (Rudy) Banerjee, associate professor of geography in the School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI. The NGS-50996R-18 grant is a $19,695 award.

About the School of Science at IUPUI

The School of Science at IUPUI is committed to excellence in teaching, research and service in the biological, physical, computational, behavioral and mathematical sciences. The school is dedicated to being a leading resource for interdisciplinary research and science education in support of Indiana's effort to expand and diversify its economy.

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