WALLINGFORD, Conn. (AP) – Dennis Richardson co-founded an initiative that provides basic health intervention to a remote village in West Africa, but that’s just his humanitarian effort. What really gets his mind churning are parasitic worms.

“What I really love is working with these obscure parasites,” said Richardson, a biology professor at Quinnipiac University.

The Arkansas native has a tattoo of an opossum and its parasitic worm on his right arm. It’s a species he has researched heavily.

Now his eyes are set on a group of worms called Acanthocephans, thorny-headed worms that live in the intestines of fish. Richardson is investigating the Leptorhynchoides thecatus among bass, green sunfish and pumpkinseed fish in Connecticut lakes.

He’s inspired by the joy of discovery, but his research does have practical benefits.

For one, it could serve as an indicator of pollution because of the worm’s ability to accumulate toxic heavy metals. It’s also a way to examine the evolution of parasite life, as worms behave differently in lakes that are connected to different river systems.

Richardson said most scientific research is grant and tenure driven, but his is all about the discovery.

“Every year, we’re making new discoveries,” said Richardson, who recently discovered a new species of leeches in Wallingford. They live on the bottom of lily pads and are believed to feed on turtles.

There are more species of parasites than host animals in the world, he said; every animal has several species of parasites.

It turns out the thorny-headed worms are “reproducing machines.” They attach their hook-like spines to the intestines of fish, mate and lay eggs that are passed through fish feces and algae. The eggs are then digested by amphipods, shrimp-like animals which, in turn, are eaten by fish, and the fish are sometimes consumed by larger fish, furthering the cycle.

Aside from causing some damage to the fish’s intestinal wall, the worms don’t harm the fish and should not be a concern of people consuming them, Richardson said. “Unless you make your own sushi,” he added, jokingly. “Evolutionarily, it’s not in the parasite’s best interest to harm its host.”

The love for science and worms doesn’t end with Richardson – it’s a family affair.

He met his wife while working on his Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Kristen Richardson is the biology lab coordinator at Quinnipiac, with an office directly across the hall.

Referencing the first parasitic worms that he explored, Dennis Richardson said, “Before Kristen came along, it was the most beautiful thing I’d seen,” as his wife pointed out a picture of the object on his wall.

The two studied parasitic worms in the same lab in Nebraska.

“We both have an innate love of biology and discovery,” said Kristen Richardson, who was a senior undergraduate when they met and later obtained her master’s from Quinnipiac, where she taught biology for several years. “It sure makes things interesting. He doesn’t come home talking about the stock market crashing.”

The couple have three daughters: Emma, 9, Maggie, 11, and Kate, 12. Dennis Richardson said they are evolving – growing out of the age when they think “daddy does the coolest thing in the world.”

The whole family is planning a trip to the village of Bawa, in Cameroon, in 2010 as part of their humanitarian work, and Richardson joked that if it weren’t for the reasoning of his wife, they’d all be destitute, as he’d spend all their money traveling the world collecting worms.

“People seem to think of parasites as something that’s to be killed,” he said. “They’re actually quite complex.”


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