Hey there, blogosphere! I’m finally back in town and have caught up on the work that I missed while visiting the Kuris Lab at the University of California-Santa Barbara. This group of parasitologists addresses numerous interesting parasite-related questions, including those related to the importance of parasites in food web dynamics and the potential applications of trematodes as bioindicators.
Recently, this group intensely studied 3 estuaries and calculated the biomass of the species found at each site. The prevailing opinion at the time of this study was that parasites are probably not found in high enough abundances to play an important role in ecosystem energetics. You can imagine how surprised everyone was then when the Kuris Lab showed that parasite biomass was often greater than the biomass of much larger groups of animals. For example, if you stuck all of the trematode parasites found in an estuary on one scale and all of the estuarine birds on another, you’d find that the parasites weight 3 to 9 times (depending on the estuary) MORE than the birds! These findings were published in Nature.
I think that studies like this are of immense importance because they change the way that we think about parasites. Parasites capture our imagination by doing things to their hosts that are more gruesome and amazing than just about anything science fictions writers have come up with thus far. Because of this, I think we tend to think of them as interesting anomalies and forget that parasites make up more than half of the species found on the planet. Future work will surely continue to enforce that parasites are important in numerous ecological processes and in human culture.
Next post: The Kuris Lab’s work on brain altering parasites in killifish!