The research, published this week in the journal Science, includes parasites in a comprehensive study of ecosystems. By doing so, the scientists say they have revealed new ecological rules.
This parasitic isopod, which is related to rolley pollies, is one of the larger parasites encountered by the researchers in the estuaries. The isopod is almost one centimeter long, and was found infecting a crab, which it had "parasitically castrated," completely blocking the host's reproduction. Credit: Ryan Hechinger
"The major finding of our research is that all types of animals –– parasites or otherwise –– appear to follow exactly the same rule for how common they are," said Ryan Hechinger, lead author and associate research biologist with the Marine Science Institute at UCSB.
"This includes birds, fishes, insects, crabs, clams, and all the parasites that live inside and on them," said Hechinger. "They all seem to follow the same rule. And the rule is simple. You can predict how common an animal is just by knowing how big an individual is and how high in the food chain it is."
The data were collected at three estuaries in Southern California and Baja California. The researchers counted and weighed parasites and other animals before documenting that parasites were indeed less common than other small animals.
"Paying attention to parasites was central to the study," said co-author Armand Kuris, professor of zoology at UCSB. "Parasites are at least half of all biodiversity. And they are different in some very basic ways than other life forms. However, ecological science usually ignores them. How can we possibly understand how life works if we don't look at half of the species –– the parasites?
"If this rule is general, it means an aphid population can produce the same amount of biomass as a deer population," said Lafferty. "Furthermore, tapeworms that feed on the deer population produce less biomass than the deer, but can produce the same as a mountain lion population that also feeds on the deer."
"Predicting animal abundance is one of the most basic and useful things ecological science can provide for management and basic research," said Hechinger. "This simple rule helps with that because it may apply to all life forms and can easily be applied to complex ecosystems in the real world."
Additional co-authors include Andy Dobson of Princeton University and the Santa Fe Institute, and James Brown of the University of New Mexico.
The research was partly funded by the joint National Science Foundation-National Institutes of Health's Ecology of Infectious Diseases program.
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