Parasites help find universal ecological rules

TitleParasites help find universal ecological rules
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2015
AuthorsHechinger RF
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Date Published2015/02

Approximately half of all species are parasites. Further, parasites can strongly influence individuals, populations, and even communities. It should therefore be axiomatic to consider parasites in efforts to develop ecological principles meant to characterize all species (1, 2). However, all too often, our general empirical and theoretical work neglects parasites. Although my colleagues and I might bemoan this neglect, as evidenced in PNAS by Lagrue et al. (3), it does give us something to do.

Indeed, ecology has been making headway by considering parasites simultaneously with free-living species in our most cohesive frameworks. For instance, recognizing parasites as consumers and resources alongside free-living species has recently enhanced our understanding of the properties of food webs (4, 5), which are maps of who eats whom in any given ecosystem. Similarly, considering parasites has helped generalize the metabolic theory of ecology, including the development of a broadly applicable rule for the abundance of all species, whether they be plants, predators, grazers, or parasites (2, 6). The importance and utility of parasites, in tandem with the promise of further developing metabolic theory in a food web context, has fostered efforts to collect extensive data for parasites and free-living species in local ecosystems. It is an exciting time, as such data permit substantial empirical and theoretical advances.

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