(Santa Barbara, Calif.) - In a study of free-living and parasitic species in three estuaries on the Pacific coast of California and Baja California, a team of researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, the United States Geological Survey, and Princeton University has determined that parasite biomass in those habitats exceeds that of top predators, in some cases by a factor of 20. Their findings, which could have significant biomedical and ecological implications, appear in the July 24 issue of the science journal Nature.
According to Armand Kuris, a professor of zoology in UCSB's Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology and a lead author of the paper, the study's findings have a potential impact on the perceived role of parasites in an ecosystem. From an ecological perspective, parasites serve both as regulators to prevent species from becoming numerically dominant and as indicators of the health of a particular ecosystem. The study shows for the first time that parasites might drive the flow of energy in ecosystems.
"The total amount of energy flow in ecosystems due to infectious processes must be enormous - even greater than we'd expect given the large parasite biomass," Kuris said. "I expect the amount of energy going into host tissue repair and replenishment is also huge. An implication of our study is that we should pay more attention to the energetics of disease."
Biomass is the amount of living matter that exists in a given habitat. It is expressed either as the weight of organisms per unit area or as the volume of organisms per unit volume of habitat. Until now, scientists have believed that because parasites are microscopic in size they comprise a small fraction of biomass in a habitat while free-living organisms such as fish, birds, and other predators comprise the vast majority.
The researchers quantified the biomass of free-living and parasitic species in the three estuaries a
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University of California - Santa Barbara