This post was originally published on BioDiverse Perspectives – a research blog aimed at fostering communication about biodiversity.
Here are a few statistics:
- Forty-percent of all species are parasites, and more than 75% of links in natural food webs are likely to involve them.
- As many as 10,000 parasitic helminth species are threatened with extinction.
- Decreases in avian diversity due to habitat loss and climate change will contribute to even greater parasite species loss in the future.
Parasites are everywhere and outnumber what we can see by a huge margin. So what does this mean when we start losing all these parasite species?
In their 2008 paper in PNAS, Dobson et al. had three objectives: 1) show exactly how abundant parasites are compared to other organisms, 2) estimate how many parasites are threatened with extinction, and 3) evaluate the potential impacts of parasite extinction.
They started by looking at previous estimates of parasite diversity, concluding that there could be over 300,000 parasitic helminth species that use vertebrates as hosts. They then took an alternate approach – evaluating all organisms in single habitat – and asked, how many parasites are there here? Their conclusion: at least 40% of all species in marshes along the California Coast are parasites. Not only that, but the structure of food webs changes dramatically depending on whether or not you include parasites in it.
Next, they looked at expected host extinction rates, and asked at what rate are parasites going to go extinct? Then they used theory on host-parasite interactions to ask, what can we expect as consequences of parasite extinctions?
This paper is a really cool example of what a talented group of researchers* can do when they really dig in to three simple questions about biodiversity and biodiversity loss, but here’s the reason that this paper should be considered a frontier in biodiversity research:
The authors fundamentally and meaningfully argued for a change in the way scientists describe biodiversity by showing that including parasites dramatically changes our understanding of global patterns of diversity, food-web structure, and the consequences of environmental change. And in doing so, they challenged my notions about generality in ecological research.
What does it mean that 90% of biodiversity research addresses about half of biodiversity? Maybe nothing – Hechinger et al. (2011) argue that parasites obey similar ecological rules as free-living organisms when it comes to abundance, energetics, and production. And if parasites obey the same ecological rules as their free-living counterparts, then maybe it’s not that big of a deal that most ecological research ignores them. However, a recent meta-analysis by Kamiya et al. from the University of Otago in New Zealand suggests that parasite biodiversity may be structured by entirely different processes than those controlling the diversity of free-living organisms. If this is the case, then maybe we do have a problem.
I am aware of ongoing debates on the value of model systems vs. purely empirical, system-specific work in gleaning ecologically relevant information. Generally, I’m of the opinion that there is value in all of these approaches. Yes, while many specific ecological systems can be context dependent, theoretical models and microcosm experiments can tell us a lot about generality despite context dependence. But what if it’s not the context-dependence that we’re getting wrong. What if general biodiversity research is only targeting half of biodiversity? How general are even the most general of theories then?
Ok, so parasites are a diverse group, and much of biodiversity research has historically failed to address them. Are there other systems that biodiversity research has failed to do justice to?
*And a courteous airline staff? A note from the acknowledgements of this paper: ”The first draft of the article was written in Kilimanjaro, Nairobi, and Heathrow Airports; A.D. thanks British Airways and Precision Air for the patience, care, and attention of their ground staff.”