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
PLOS Biology: June 2013
UCSB press release
Following is a sample of the coverage of this study:
ScienceBlog: Parasites affect the food web more than you think
PLOS Biology Synopsis by Jonathan Chase: Parasites in Food Webs: Untangling the Entangled Bank
Armand Kuris (left), Kevin Lafferty (front), and Ryan Hechinger.
Credit: George Foulsham, Office of Public Affairs, UCSB