In what has been described as the most comprehensive study on the matter, scientists believe climate change might eliminate a third of all parasite species by the year 2070.
Although most of us detest the presence of parasites and fear the diseases they may cause, these tiny creatures are also helpful in maintaining the balance in the world’s ecosystems. According to the Guardian, if major extinction events result in the death of certain parasite species, surviving species could theoretically invade new areas. That would lead to a ripple effect, where these parasites could compromise the health and lives of humans and other animals and play a key role in the ongoing sixth mass extinction on Earth.
The researchers used the Smithsonian Institution Museum of National History’s collection of 20 million parasites to determine how 457 parasite species are distributed around the world. Using climate modeling and theories on future scenarios, the researchers determined that about 10 percent of all parasites would be extinct in 2070, as habitats continue becoming unsuitable. Climate change, however, could cause a third of all parasites to go extinct if the disappearance of host species is also taken into account.
In the words of study lead author Colin Carlson of the University of California, the above figures represent “staggering” numbers.
“Parasites seem like one of the most threatened groups on Earth.”
Curbing climate change could reduce parasite extinctions in the decades to come, the researchers added. If parasite native ranges, for instance, go down by 20 percent in areas where fossil fuel emissions have been, or are likely to be cut down directly, this figure could go up to about 37 percent if toxic emissions remain at their current levels or higher.
Stressing the importance of his study’s findings, Carlson noted that parasites, while being a “hard sell,” are key players in ecosystems, providing up to 80 percent of food web links. When a variety of parasites are found in an ecosystem, that means they compete against each other, which, strangely enough, impedes the spread of diseases. That also means their extinction could prove detrimental to ecosystems and the creatures within them.
“If parasites go extinct, we are looking at a potential massive destabilization of ecosystems [which] could have huge unexpected consequences. That doesn’t necessarily work out well for anyone, wildlife or humans.”
As climate change could cause the demise of several parasite species, scientists believe that these creatures should be factored in when people talk about conservation. To that end, Carlson and his colleagues created an online “red list” of parasite species, specifying the extinction threat level of each of the 457 species they studied, according to Phys.org.
“It is difficult to summarise the net consequence, as we know so little about most parasites,” Carlson concluded. “Climate change will make some parasites extinct and make some do better. But we would argue the overall phenomenon is dangerous, because extinctions and invasions go hand in hand.”
[Featured Image by dblight/iStock]