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Oh, Deer! How One Entomologist Works to Improve Wildlife and Livestock Health

By Karen Poh, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: This is the next post in the “Standout ECPs” series contributed by the Entomological Society of America’s Early Career Professionals (ECP) Committee, highlighting outstanding ECPs that are doing great work in the profession. (An ECP is defined as anyone within the first five years of obtaining their terminal degree in their field.) Learn more about the work ECPs are doing within ESA, and read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.

Bethany McGregor, Ph.D., is a research entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service in the Arthropod-Borne Animal Diseases Research Unit (ABADRU) in Manhattan, Kansas. She received her bachelor of science degree in wildlife and fisheries science from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, a master of science degree in biology from the University of Louisiana at Monroe, and a Ph.D. in entomology and nematology from the University of Florida working with Nathan Burkett-Cadena, Ph.D., at the Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory in Vero Beach, Florida. She was also an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education postdoctoral fellow at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Fort Collins, Colorado, in the Division of Vector-borne Diseases, Arboviral Diseases Branch, Entomology and Ecology Team, for 10 months, working with Roxanne Connelly, Ph.D.

In May 2020, McGregor started her current position at the USDA. In her current role, she mainly studies the ecology of Culicoides biting midges and Culicoides-borne viruses. Within the Entomological Society of America, she is the chair of the Medical, Urban, and Veterinary Entomology (MUVE) Section’s Communications Committee and leader of the MUVE Mentorship Network Initiative.

Poh: Your Ph.D. focused on Culicoides biting midges and establishing them as vectors of pathogens that cause diseases in white-tailed deer. What inspired you to pursue this topic? What were some of the major findings of your dissertation?

McGregor: I have always been passionate about the health and well-being of animals; in fact, my original major during undergrad was pre-veterinary science before switching to wildlife and fisheries science. The main Culicoides-borne pathogen of my Ph.D. research, epizootic hemorrhagic disease virus (EHDV), causes significant morbidity and mortality to both wild and farmed white-tailed deer populations in the United States. I was very inspired to pursue research in this system so I could positively impact the well-being of white-tailed deer in Florida as well as the livelihoods of the deer farmers who were experiencing significant herd losses.

One of the major questions I sought to answer with my dissertation research was a significant conundrum in many southeastern states of the U.S.: With outbreaks of EHDV common in this region in the absence of Culicoides sonorensis, the confirmed vector, which midge species was transmitting the virus? During an outbreak of EHDV at several Florida deer farms in 2017, we were able to detect EHDV-positive pools from two species, Culicoides stellifer and Culicoides venustus. We also had previously collected data on host use showing that both species regularly fed on white-tailed deer and phenological data indicating that both species are common on the landscape year-round, including during peak EHDV activity. Using all of these data, we were able to partially implicate these species in the transmission of EHDV in Florida.

During this time, I also conducted several studies to better understand where midges were found on the landscape. We conducted one such study to test the idea that midges stratify vertically in the forest based on host preference, with ornithophilic species in the canopy and mammalophilic species staying near the ground. In fact, I found that most midge species on big game preserves, including those that primarily feed on large ground-dwelling mammals, were found in significantly greater abundance in tree canopies than near the ground. This could have major implications for the control of biting midges on deer farms during EHDV outbreaks.

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