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Save the Parasites — Save the World?

Fans of the television series “Heroes” will remember the mantra repeated throughout the show to keep characters focused on their quest to destroy the superhumans out to destroy the world. While parasites aren’t forces of good, they’re not as evil as their reputations either. Now, scientists concerned about the future of the planet are looking at the dramatic loss of many parasitic species – few that attack humans – due to climate change and are attempting to rally us to save the parasites and hopefully save the world. Will this make a good TV series?

“Found throughout the tree of life and in every ecosystem, parasites are some of the most diverse, ecologically important animals on Earth—but in almost all cases, the least protected by wildlife or ecosystem conservation efforts.”

Parasitic mistletoe

The journal Biological Conservation has devoted the entire current issue to parasite conservation and anchored it around a paper by the world’s leading dozen leading parasite ecologists, led by assistant professor Chelsea Wood of the University of Washington School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. The paper introduces a “Global Plan” to conserve parasitic diversity and lists 12 goals to be achieved over the next decade. Those goals include:

  • Add parasites to biodiversity surveys
  • Document and explain declines and extinctions
  • Create regional and global parasite Red Lists
  • Build parasitism into K-12 and college curricula
  • Why this sudden interest in saving parasites?

“The increasing recognition of parasites as key players in ecological networks makes it clear that losing parasites might affect ecosystems in unpredictable – and likely detrimental – ways and offers very strong arguments for parasite conservation.”

Dr. Giovanni Strona, an associate professor in ecological data science at the University of Helsinki and a co-author, explains that most parasites — organisms that live on or in a host organism and get their food from or at the expense of the host – often serve the critical ecological role of population control of wildlife that might otherwise overbreed and become pests. While many are the blood-sucking or brain-eating type that give the category a bad name, their good outweighs their bad traits. Unfortunately, it’s estimated that less than 10% of parasites have been described or even named by scientists, which explains the goal of education put forth by the paper. As co-lead author Colin Carlson, a biologist at Georgetown University, explains in the press release:

“If species don’t have a name, we can’t save them. We’ve accepted that for decades about most animals and plants, but scientists have only discovered a fraction of a percentage of all the parasites on the planet. Those are the last frontiers: the deep sea, deep space, and the world that’s living inside every species on Earth.”

‘Guts: the final frontier’ doesn’t have the same ‘hit series’ cachet as the Star Trek motto, but ‘Save the parasites, save the world’ might. (If any of the paper’s authors are interested in the meme or a pilot script, call me.) Is “Save the parasites” too ambitious of a goal when there are so many other problems in the world today?

Parasitic mushrooms

“Climate change, emerging diseases, and mass extinction are already monumental crises that desperately need more personnel and funding. However, we believe all available scientific evidence suggests that neglecting the hidden world of parasites only limits our efficacy in fighting these other battles, and will lead to more and worse unexpected outcomes.”

OK, as long as they promise not to spend too much time on ticks, ringworms and head lice.

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Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.
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