The World’s Biggest Study on Parasites Reveals Bizarre Facts !

Credit: National Cancer Institute/ unsplash

Parasites are not all bad, and in a rapidly changing world, they need our protection, but they don’t seem to be getting it. In fact, in the second-largest estuary in the United States, scientists have cataloged a mass die-off among marine organisms that rely on free-living hosts to survive.

Study Conducted

Over the past 140 years, from 1880 to 2019, parasite numbers in Puget Sound dropped by 38 percent for every degree Celsius of warming in sea surface temperature, researchers at the University of Washington (UW) have found. The study is the largest and longest dataset on parasite abundance collected anywhere in the world, and the results are even worse than some conservationists had feared. Parasites are the invisible threads that help tie food webs together. How ecosystems will cope without their influence is unclear.

“The findings are a real bummer if you care about biodiversity or you know anything about parasites,” parasitologist Chelsea Wood from UW said. If the same degree of loss were observed among mammals or birds, Wood says it would trigger conservation action immediately. Birds in North America, for example, have declined by just over 6 percent a decade from 1970 to 2017, and already they feature heavily in conservation plans. In comparison, no one really cares about parasites. A decreasing number of creatures that leech off the life of others is usually seen as a good thing. But that’s an outdated view that neglects the bigger picture.

Connective Role Of Parasites

At the moment, very few ecological surveys consider parasites, and conservation efforts almost always overlook their connective role in a habitat, despite their widespread and essential role in maintaining ecological balance. Only when parasites proliferate and become a problem do we tend to pay them any notice. In 2020, for instance, Wood’s lab at UW made headlines when it found a specific parasitic worm in raw seafood had increased 280-fold since the 1970s. But not all parasites are faring so well. In fact, many of them are probably suffering in the current climate crisis. Like bubbles in a boiling pot, they are disappearing faster than we can count them.

Apex predators, as it turns out, weren’t always disruptive pests; they were essential habitat stabilizers. Reintroducing them to habitats helped ecosystems flourish once again. “That’s where we are for parasites,” Wood says, “We’re at this moment when research is starting to accumulate to suggest how awesomely powerful parasites are in an ecosystem. But that information hasn’t yet leaked out to the public.”

Unlike apex predators, parasites are harder to see if you aren’t actively searching them out. And finding them is not exactly glamorous work. “Your fieldwork is sitting in the basement of a museum, dissecting fish that are suffused with disgusting chemicals,” says Wood. The parasites of the present and the past are there for us to count. Now we just need to plug our noses and dive.

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Source: Sciencealert