The Earth's changing climate could cause the extinction of up to a third of its parasite species by 2070, according to a global analysis reported Sept. 6 in the journal Science Advances.
Parasite loss could dramatically disrupt ecosystems, and the new study suggests that they are one of the most threatened groups of life on Earth.
University of Michigan wildlife ecologist Nyeema Harris is one of the paper's 17 authors.
Parasites have an admittedly bad reputation. The diverse group of organisms includes tapeworms, roundworms, ticks, lice, fleas and other pests—most of which are best known for causing disease in humans, livestock and other animals. But parasites play important roles in ecosystems. They help control wildlife populations and keep energy flowing through food chains.
U-M's Harris scoured multiple parasite databases for geographic information, including records from the university's Museum of Zoology curated by Professor Barry OConnor, whose research focuses on the evolution and ecology of parasitic and commensal mites and their hosts.
Harris also wrote and edited sections of the Science Advances paper, and a flea image used in the paper came from a specimen she collected from a black-footed ferret, one of the most endangered carnivores in North America.
"Climate change has the capacity to alter nearly every dimension of biodiversity," said Harris, an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. "Yet, despite being among the most diverse groups of organisms on Earth, parasites have previously been omitted from vulnerability assessments.
"Given our concerns about parasites devastating animal populations and the transmission risks to humans, it's been surprising to discover their patterns of diversity and to understand their sensitivities to such a major environmental concern."
Parasites need to be included in conversations about conservation, and this study highlights their delicate position in complex ecosystems, the scientists said.
Read the Science Advances paper, Parasite biodiversity faces extinction and redistribution in a changing climate