Parasites Affect the Food Web More Than You Think

Parasitic Isopod Leidya, Photo Credit: Ryan Hechinger

Parasites are ubiquitous. They feed on virtually every animal and even on each other. Yet, for all the parasites' collective contributions to biomass and biodiversity, conventional food webs don't account for the presence of these tiny and numerous consumers. A recent study may alter our picture of who-eats-who.

"If you are not including parasites in food webs, you aren't getting the whole picture," said Kevin Lafferty, a marine ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, and adjunct professor in the UCSB Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology (EEMB). "They are consumers like predators, but they are less visible and easy to forget."

The paper written with Jennifer Dunne, research professor  Santa Fe Institute, was the result of a working group led by Lafferty at UCSB's National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. As part of that working group, the researchers published six high-quality food webs complete with parasites, like tapeworms and flukes, alongside free-living species, like birds, crabs, and clams. Creating these food webs was the first step in the study.
 

Parasites Affect Food Web Structure Primarily through Increased Diversity and Complexity
Jennifer A. Dunne, Kevin D. Lafferty, Andrew P. Dobson, Ryan F. Hechinger, Armand M. Kuris, Neo D. Martinez, John P. McLaughlin, Kim N. Mouritsen, Robert Poulin, Karsten Reise, Daniel B. Stouffer, David W. Thieltges, Richard J. Williams, and Claus Dieter Zander
PLOS Biology: June 2013
 

UCSB press release


Following is a sample of the coverage of this study:

Phys.org: Do parasites upset food web theory?

​PLOS Biology Synopsis by Jonathan Chase: Parasites in Food Webs: Untangling the Entangled Bank
 
 
More information on this project's research, participants and publications.
 

Armand Kuris (left), Kevin Lafferty (front), and Ryan Hechinger. <span class="photoCredit">Credit: George Foulsham, Office of Public Affairs, UCSB</span>
Armand Kuris (left), Kevin Lafferty (front), and Ryan Hechinger.
Credit: George Foulsham, Office of Public Affairs, UCSB
 

 

 




 

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Posted on June 19, 2013