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Study shows that parasites form the thread of food webs

(Santa Barbara, Calif.) Scientists have discovered that parasites are suprisingly important in food webs and their findings appear in a report published this week in the Early Edition of the on-line version of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Scientists with the University of California, Santa Barbara, the U.S. Geological Survey, and Princeton University contributed.

The report describes a study performed in Santa Barbara County at the Carpinteria Salt Marsh. Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve is one of several natural reserves set aside by the University of California for research and teaching.

Food webs trace the flow of energy through an ecosystem. They extend the concept of food chains those who-eats-whom sequences to biological communities. Food webs rarely include parasites because of the difficulty in quantifying them by standard ecological methods. Parasites are small and invisible, hidden inside their hosts. However, parasites strongly affect food web structure and parasite links are necessary for measuring ecosystem stability, according to the study.

"Food web theory is the framework for modern ecology," said Kevin Lafferty, a scientist with the USGS Western Ecological Research Center who is based at UC Santa Barbara and is lead author of the study. "Parasites have been missing from this framework and, as a result, we know relatively little about the role of parasites in ecosystems. It's like driving with a highway map, but with no knowledge of the smaller road network. To reach most destinations, you need a map with both."

Using data from four relatively comprehensive food webs that contain parasites, Lafferty and his coauthors examined if and how parasites affected the food webs. They found that parasites dominated the food web links between species; on average, a food web contained more links between parasites and their hosts than between predators and their prey.

"Parasites may well be t
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Contact: Gail Gallessich
gail.g@ia.ucsb.edu
805-893-7220
University of California - Santa Barbara
12-Jul-2006


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