Loyola University Chicago

Department of Biology

Heather Skeen Thesis Defense: Project Description

Title: Prevalence and Diversity of the Haemosporidian blood parasite Leucocytozoon in sub-Saharan African birds


Our knowledge of avian Haemosporidian parasites has increased dramatically with the advent and increased use of molecular technologies.  Yet Leucocytozoon, a common avian parasite, remains relatively understudied.   Haemosporidian parasite diversity and prevalence has been shown to be dependent on several factors, including host family and habitat, on a microecological scale.  In this study I screened 3,375 birds from sub-Saharan Africa for the presence of Leucocytozoon and demonstrate that the patterns of prevalence and diversity continue at a macroecological scale.  Using molecular data, I found that the prevalence of Leucocytozoon varied between sampling areas from 3.9% to 62.64% and the diversity between parasite lineages varied from 0.1% to 16.6%.  The high variation in prevalence between sampling areas indicate that there are significant factors affecting this parasite’s ability to transmit between hosts.  Through statistical tests, I determined that host family, geographic region, and habitat all influence the prevalence of Leucocytozoon.  Additionally, by analyzing the distribution of parasite lineages I demonstrate that the 326 unique lineages recovered in this study are a small fraction of the overall number of parasites that may be present within host populations.  The results of this study provide insight into the true diversity of this parasite and the difference in prevalence across sampling areas. 


I would first like to express my utmost gratitude to my advisor, Dr. Sushma Reddy, for encouraging me to consider a Master of Science graduate program and for guiding and supporting me over the past two and a half years. Thank you as well to my fellow graduate students, the faculty of the Biology Department, and especially the members of my committee, Dr. Catherine Putonti, Dr. Kim Williamson, and Dr. Shannon Hackett. The knowledge and skills I have gained at Loyola University Chicago will allow me to succeed in my future career.


Heather Skeen was born and raised in the north suburbs of Chicago.  She received her Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology and Biological Sciences from Colorado State University in 2008.  After graduation she worked as a research assistant at the Field Museum of Natural History studying avian pathogens and parasites.  In 2013 she began the Master of Science in Biology program at Loyola University Chicago.  Heather is currently in her first year of a PhD program at University of Chicago where she will continue her research on avian parasites. 

Committee Members:

Dr. Sushma Reddy

Dr. Catherine Putonti

Dr. Kim Williamson

Dr. Shannon Hackett  (Field Museum)