Climate change threatens global parasite populations, study reports

A new study takes a look at the effects of climate change.
By Joseph Scalise | Sep 12, 2017
Climate change could cause nearly a third of all parasites to go extinct by 2070, a new study published in the journal Science Advances reports.

While this may seem like good news, scientists believe it could lead to a number of problems in the coming years. That is because parasites are an important part of many ecosystems and they affect populations on a global scale. Without them, many food chains could be knocked out of balance.

For the study, a team of international researchers led by the U.S. National Parasite Collection spent years tracking down different parasite species in order to understand both their habitat and needs. They then used climate forecasts to look at how 457 different species will react to future climate change. This showed that most parasites on Earth -- nearly a third -- will die out from habitat loss in the coming years.

The reason that trend is cause for concern is because parasites provide many vital functions. They help keep populations in check, limit the spread of disease, and also allow food chains to stay in order. Not only that, but, as parasites typically have complex life cycles that require being passed on to multiple hosts, they are also strong indicators of healthy ecosystems.

"[Parasites] mean the system has a diversity of animals in it and that conditions have been consistent long enough for these complex associations to develop," explained study co-author Anna J. Phillips, a researcher from the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, in a statement.

As they have such a bad reputation, parasites are typically overlooked in studies regarding climate change. This research has only recently come to light, and scientists are just now learning about how global warming may affect parasite populations. The team hopes the new research will increase the understanding of the organisms and give other researchers a way to further analyze the implications of declining populations.

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

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