Terry Miller of Queensland Museum standing in the Discovery Centre exhibition

Marine parasites

Tape worms. Ticks. Head lice. The thought is enough to make you squirm, flinch and scratch. Yes, we’re talking about parasites! Most parasites are tiny; you’ll need a magnifying glass handy to see them.

Dr Terry Miller, parasitologist and Queensland Museum’s Head of Biodiversity and Geosciences reveals more about this interesting, and often unpleasant group of organisms, as well as his role and research happening at the museum.

Meet our guest

Dr Terry Miller is the Head of Biodiversity and Geosciences at Queensland Museum and specialises in the study of parasites, with a primary focus on the protozoan parasites of aquatic animals and wildlife. Prior to working at Queensland Museum, Dr Miller spent nine years at James Cook University as an Adjunct Senior Lecturer in the Centre for Sustainable Tropical Fisheries and Aquaculture and a Research Fellow.

Throughout his career Dr Miller has spent time working as a Senior Laboratory Scientist and research scientist with the Western Australia Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development and Department of Fisheries Western Australia.

Following the completion of his Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Dr Miller worked for a number of years as a research officer at Queensland Museum investigating the ecology, biodiversity and systematics of parasites and diseases of coral reef organisms.

Dr Miller has a research focus on fish parasites and diseases, but has experience and an interest in a wide range of parasites in the marine environment. Dr Miller has studied at a range of institutions around the world including The University of Queensland, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Texas A&M University Galveston Campus.

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LC: Terry, what is a parasitologist?

TM: Parasitologist is somebody who studies parasites. What’s interesting about parasites is they encompass about 50 percent of all life on Earth. Some people, including myself, consider our children parasites. But, you know, just broadly, you know, the parasitic way of life is part of the vast majority of the biodiversity we see on the planet. But most people don’t realise how diverse or extraordinary parasites are.

LC: Well, parasites aren’t the most popular organisms. Are there any benefits of them? What would the world be like without them?

TM: Well, we wouldn’t have the diversity of animal life that we have on the planet. So a lot of the species diversity we see, particularly in coral reef systems and rainforests, are driven by the parasite faunas that infect the various organisms within an ecosystem. So anywhere from your ground snails, marine snails all the way through up to the fish and marine mammals that feed on them, have all this competition in battle for parasitism and how it’s impacted on organisms over time has had a big influence on the diversity of life we see on the planet.

LC: Do you have a favourite from studying parasites, terrestrial on land or in the marine world?

TM: Well, my background is marine.

TM: So I initially studied at the University of Nebraska back in the U.S., which is about as far from the ocean as you can get in the world but they used to have one of the world’s top marine parasite labs, which is a very strange place to have one. But the researchers there used to go out and collect from all over the world and bring it back. So I fell in love with marine parasites there and came to Queensland years ago to study my PhD on coral reef parasites so I’m a bit biased towards the marine realm. But that’s my preference.

LC: Yeah, well, it’s a good place to come and dive off the coast of Queensland. Can you share some interesting facts about parasites?

TM: Instead of facts I think I’ll go into a story because something that Queensland locals found amazing when I was here working as a Postdoc previously is that there’s a local fish that people catch called the butter bream and it’s this diamond shaped small fish you can get in Moreton Bay and it’s very common. What’s really interesting about this fish is that when people go to fillet it and have it for dinner and cook it when you heat the flesh up, it actually melts and turns into a buttery consistency. So this common name of the fish actually is due to a parasite that lives in the muscle tissues called Myxosporeans, which is where they form these little cysts inside the muscle. They’re microscopic and you can’t see them when the fish is alive or after you’ve just finished fishing it. But as soon as you heat it up, it releases an enzyme that breaks down the muscle so it turns the flesh a buttery consistency. It’s not harmful to humans, but obviously, you know, if you’re trying to eat this fish fillet. It’s quite disgusting when you have something buttery in front of you. But it’s a really cool example of a common name of a fish that’s actually derived from the parasite faunas that they carry, which are very prevalent in Moreton Bay. So it’s an interesting little fact that people don’t know and there’s a few fish in some of these parasites like Myxosporeans that do have commercial impact in other fisheries. And so prior to coming to Queensland Museum, I was working in Western Australia for the Fisheries Department over there in aquatic animal health. So a lot of our work there was diagnosing some of these parasite viral and bacterial diseases that affect aquaculture, industry and world fisheries.

LC: Have you got a favourite parasite species?

TM: The Myxosporeans are rapidly becoming my favourite group. Just because of the extraordinary nature of these things. They’re actually closely related to jellyfish. So they’re what we call cnidarian’s in the scientific speak. They’re highly evolved, actively parasitic jellyfish that have lost a lot of their characters. The little spores that they produce and have inside the organism is very similar to a jellyfish nematocysts that fires off so when you get a jellyfish sting, it’s a very similar process. So they’re really extraordinary animals. They live in fish as a host, but also in marine worms and polychaete or annelids that live in the marine environment. So they have a two host lifecycle, very extraordinary creatures. And the diversity is at least as diverse as the fish fauna around the world, if not double or triple that, an extraordinary diversity.

LC: Do they live in the muscle of the fish or can they live in organs as well?

TM: Yeah, it depends on the species. Some target just the muscle tissue, but others live in gills, for instance, or various organs within the host and some form cysts that you can’t see with your naked eye. Others form really dramatic cysts in the flesh. So when you go to fillet a fish, you may open it up and see thousands of these white little dots inside the meat of the fish, which is obviously off-putting to somebody who wants to eat that. And there’s a species we get in tuna around Australia that often comes up and we get particularly when I was in the diagnostic labs in Western Australia, we would have people go, what is this horrible thing that’s infesting my fish? And we would tell them the back story to it and get them excited. But these, for the most part, don’t have any human health implications and the fish, for the most part, can live relatively happy with some of these parasites. Others, it does have a pretty significant impact on.

LC: Well, you’ve had quite a career shift. You’re now the Head of Biodiversity and Geosciences at Queensland Museum. What does your role entail?

TM: I’d like to say I’m a scientist still, but more of a desk jockey and a manager these days. I’ve got about 35 staff at the moment and my team. So right now I’m starting to get in managing the program, all the research activities, the public engagement but someday I’ll be back at a microscope doing some more parasitology research. And my background was in parasite biodiversity, as I mentioned, when I came back to Queensland. So we were studying coral reef parasites, and because Queensland’s one of the most mega diverse states within Australia, it’s a really good place when you’re out looking for species and species discovery. During my PhD alone I described 64 new species of parasites and that’s just starting to scratch the surface of the actual diversity that’s out there and so there’s plenty of work to do in that space.

LC: What are some of the other fields of science that the other scientists work in?

TM: Yeah, it’s been really interesting for me to get my head around because we’ve got palaeontologists, we have one at the Queensland Museum Tropics who’s studying marine reptiles so your old Plesiosaurs that he’s pulling out of Western Queensland, which is really amazing. We’ve got a vertebrate palaeontologist here in Brisbane. We have a paleobotanist. I think Australia’s only palaeobotanist at the moment at Queensland Museum, which is really exciting. So we have the diversity of the geoscience crew all the way through to the coral reef scientists. We have coral taxonomists and coral ecologists through to the terrestrial team. So all the terrestrial insects, which are incredibly diverse as well. We have ant experts all the way through to butterfly and marine vertebrate and terrestrial vertebrate people. So, yeah, for me, it’s really exciting just to have that diversity of sciences and just getting my head around all of the research activities the group’s been doing has been really fun.

LC: Well talking about research activities, what are some of the activities that are underway right now?

TM: Yeah, there’s one of the projects I’m excited about is what we call Coral Bank Project, which is funded through Project DIG, which is a partnership we have with BHP, and this Coral Bank Project in particular, is looking at resolving some of the taxonomic issues we have with corals currently in Australia, but also around the world. So we just recruited a bio systematised position, which is effectively a bioinformatics person who looks at genomes and large genetic datasets and tries to tease out relationships and evolutionary history of a lot of these organisms. What’s interesting is Queensland Museum effectively wrote the textbook on coral taxonomy years ago, and that was primarily based on morphological characters and structures of the skeletons of corals. But the genetics are changing that story pretty dramatically, and it’s similar to other groups of organisms. But this Coral Bank Project, we’re taking a lead in using genomics tools to try and resolve the taxonomy. And so, for example, some of the species we thought were widely distributed on the Great Barrier Reef turn out to be complexes of species. You may have what we thought was one, may end up being five different species with highly endemic restriction zones within the reef that they live. So obviously, from a management standpoint, this information is quite useful to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and others who are managing these ecosystems, because knowing that diversity and how endemic and localised some of these groups are is really important for protecting them. So that’s an exciting project going forward. Another project that just got funding last week is a grant that our Senior Curator of Invertebrates, Dr Chris Burwell got, which is looking at detecting invasive species using artificial intelligence. So Chris is an expert in some of these taxonomy and systematics of invasive ant species around Australia. And what they’re doing is they’re taking some high-resolution images of known species that we have in our collection and training an artificial intelligence software program to be able to help field officers who are out going and hunting for invasive species to either use a smartphone or a small DSLR and be able to take images and see if the artificial intelligence can identify him in the field instead of having a taxonomic expert like Chris. So he might be doing himself out of a job in some respects, but it’s a really cool project to look at. And it’ll be interesting to see how well they can train this artificial intelligence software to go.

LC: I suspect that scientific study has changed a lot since you first began studying.

TM: You know, I like to think I’m middle aged, but I’m starting to feel old now because the technology, particularly in the genomics space, is rapidly changing. So when I was a student, we would sequence sections of genomes that might be a thousand base pairs long and we thought that was exciting. And now you can effectively plug a device into a laptop and generate a whole genome in a day. So you go from what we call the old school sequencing into the next generation sequencing and, you know, the ability to create genomes from organisms in the field very rapidly, as you know, that technology and then being able to analyse and process that data is rapidly changing. So I used to be on top of the field and now I’m relying on my team to train me up and learn those skills.

LC: Well, I think we’re going to wrap up the podcast with our museum in a minute. Rapid-fire questions. Are you ready, Terry?

TM: I think so. OK, here we go.

LC: Favourite collection item?

TM: Whale.

LC: Well, what year was Queensland Museum founded?

TM: Oh, my gosh. 1857.

LC: When you were a child, did you dream of working at a museum?

TM: I wanted to be an astronaut, actually.

LC: How many objects and specimens make up the state collection?

TM: Four hundred and seventy million?

LC: Favourite exhibition, past or present?

TM: Sea Monsters for sure.

LC: Which is more iconic Muttaburrasaurus or Mephisto?

TM: Muttaburrasaurus.

LC: Would you prefer to work in the field or in the office field?

TM: Field, absolutely!

LC: Indiana Jones or Jurassic Park?

TM: Indiana Jones.

LC: Favourite animal in Wild State?

TM: Cassowary.

LC: I think I know the answer the next one. Biodiversity and Geosciences or Cultures and History?

TM: Bio and Geo for sure.

LC: What is Queensland Museum’s most visited exhibition?

TM: Oh, probably Lost Creatures because it’s been up so long.

TM: What percentage of the State Collection is on display?

TM: Oh, a very small percentage, unfortunately. We’re trying to change that.

LC: Well, you know, I know that many people don’t realise that the museum has a number of expert scientists or staff in the fields of biodiversity and geosciences and it’s been great to get some insight into that team today. Thank you for joining us.

TM: Great. Thanks, Laura.

LC: Thanks for joining us on the Museum Revealed podcast. What did you uncover in this episode? If you’re interested in learning more via the show notes linked below, you can follow Queensland Museum on social media @qldmuseum or head to our website at qm.qld.gov.au. While you’re there, sign up to our eNews list to find out what’s on at the museum. Until next time. Stay curious.

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