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Climate Change Threatens One Third Of All Parasites: Why This Is Bad

10 September 2017, 1:31 am EDT By Athena Chan Tech Times
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The Smithsonian's National Parasite Collection holds over 20 million parasite specimens. Researchers utilized the Smithsonian's database along with other data sources to find out how climate change affects the Earth's parasite species.   ( Paul Fetters | Smithsonian Institution )

Climate change could cause the extinction of a third of all parasites by the year 2070. It may not sound so bad, but parasites are actually important members of the Earth's ecosystem.

A Third Of Parasites Could Go Extinct

Parasites don't normally have good reputations, but a new study findings remind us that they are also important members of the ecosystem. As it turns out, parasites are actually some of the Earth's most threatened life forms as a result of climate change.

The study published in the journal Science Advances was completed with the help of the U.S. National Parasite Collection, as well as specialized databases of ticks, fleas, bee mites, and feather mites. What's more, 17 researchers from eight countries spent years tracking down different parasite specimens in order to understand the species' habitat and needs.

By using climate forecasts to determine how the 457 parasite species will react to the changing climate, researchers found they are evidently among the most threatened life forms on Earth with regards to climate change, even more so than their hosts. In fact, models show that about a third of parasites could go extinct by 2070 from the effects of habitat loss alone, with the more conservative models showing instead a 5 to 10 percent loss.

Why A Parasite Die Off Is Bad

Parasites don't often good reputations as they are often responsible for diseases and infections. By definition, parasites are organisms that live and thrive at the expense of its host. But did you know that they are also important members of the ecosystem?

As small as they are and despite their negative reputations, parasites actually contribute to keeping wildlife populations in check, and in providing a large percentage of food chain links. Many parasites have complex life cycles that require being passed from one host to another. Because of this, having strong populations of parasites are often indicators of a healthy ecosystem.

"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," said Anna J. Phillips of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. What's more, a wide range of parasites in an ecosystem means that they could compete with one another, therefore slowing down the spread of diseases. Without them, the ecosystem could be seriously affected.

Unfortunately, because of their bad reputation, they are often overlooked in studies regarding climate change and its impacts. It is only now that we see that they, too, are affected by the climate crisis. Because of the current study, scientists can look further into the implications of changing parasite populations. This is especially important as it could also lead to the thriving of other, possibly more invasive parasites as a result of the lack of competition.

"Climate change will make some parasites extinct and make some do better. But we would argue the overall phenomenon is dangerous, because extinctions and invasions go hand in hand," said Colin Carlson from the University of California Berkeley, lead author of the study.

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