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Parasites and ecosystem health

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A review concludes that a healthy ecosystem is typically rich in parasites.

A healthy ecosystem? Image courtesy of David Williams

A healthy ecosystem? Image courtesy of David Williams

Parasites are typically the Cinderella species of natural communities. They can play crucial roles in maintaining biodiversity and energy flow through ecosystems. Yet they are often overlooked in studies of community organization and trophic structure.

Peter Hudson and collaborators have reviewed an increasing body of evidence that parasites are an important indicator of ecosystem health — that is, the ability of the system to maintain:

  • vigor (productivity)
  • organization (biodiversity and predictability)
  • resilience (time to recovery following a disturbance)

The researchers support their argument with examples of systems where parasites have been shown to affect host population dynamics, interspecies competition, and ecosystem productivity.

They point out that host diversity is reflected in parasite diversity, and that it can sometimes be easier and cheaper to sample parasites than hosts.

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