New Study Finds One-Third Of Parasite Species Could Be Extinct By 2070

October 6, 2017


A third of the Earth’s parasitic species could be facing extinction by 2070, a new study finds. The study was published in the journal of Science Advances and was conducted by multiple international researchers including Nyeema Harris, an assistant professor in the University of Michigan’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. The main cause of the parasite’s probable extinction, the study reports, is climate change.

“Climate change has the capacity to alter almost every dimension of biodiversity,” said Harris.

The extinction of a third of the parasite species may sound fortunate. After all, the American population as a whole spends up to $9 billion a year controlling fleas, which can lay up to 2,000 eggs during their lifetime. However, the drastic loss in the parasite population could cause detrimental disruptions to the Earth’s ecosystems.

“Having parasites is a good indicator that the ecosystem has been stable,” said Anna J. Phillips, a research zoologist and a curator of the U.S. National Parasite Collection at the Smithsonian Institute. “It means the system has a diversity of animals in it and that conditions have been consistent long enough for these complex associations to develop.”

Parasites like fleas and tapeworms often get a bad reputation because of their habit of spreading disease to other organisms. Just this past August, fleas in the state of Arizona were discovered to carrying Plague. Still, parasites are essential to Earth’s wildlife. They maintain the flow of energy between the ecosystems’ food chains and control the wildlife populations.

The diversity in parasite species is considered a sign of a healthy ecosystem, said Phillips. This diversity is maintained through the parasite’s complex life cycle that involves feeding on and passing through the bodies of various species of hosts.

The researchers in the study analyzed the U.S. National Parasite Collection, which began in 1892, as well as other information from specialized global databases. The study took several years due to the need to geographically track thousands of parasite specimens.

After the geospatial information was completed, the researchers then used the available data to predict the future of up to 457 parasite species over the course of the Earth’s future climate forecasts.

The conclusion of the study found that the most optimistic outcome would be the extinction of 10% of the parasite population. The worst case scenario would be a loss of up to a third of the world’s parasites over the course of the next 50 years.

“As long as there are free-living organisms, there will be parasites,” said Phillips. “But, the picture of parasite biodiversity in 2070 or beyond has the potential to look very different than it does today.”

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