A Global Plan for Parasite Conservation

Brightly colored forms twist inside a netlike structure
The parasitic worm that causes schistosomiasis hatches in water, and its larvae mature in a freshwater snail, as shown here. Once mature, the worm swims back into the water, where it can infect people through skin contact. (Photo: Bo Wang and Phillip A. Newmark, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2013 FASEB BioArt winner)

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Parasites are unseen heroes that maintain ecosystem stability; they are scarcely studied and highly threatened by global change, and now there is a global plan to conserve them.

This press release originated with the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis.

Media Contact

Karen Teber

(August 1, 2020) — Parasites are found in every ecosystem and play important roles in nutrient cycling, wildlife population control, and ecosystem stability. They are threatened not only by the changing climate or habitat loss, but also by extinctions of their hosts, making them highly vulnerable to extinction; one recent study estimated that one in every three parasite species might be at risk of extinction in the next 50 years. Yet it is estimated that less than 10% of parasites have been adequately described or even named by the science community, a value that Carlson and Hopkins et al. propose to bring up to 50% in their global parasite conservation plan. The plan appears August 1, 2020, in a Biological Conservation special issue: “Parasite Conservation in a Changing World.”

The “Global Plan” is a formal action plan to conserve parasite biodiversity. Set to be accomplished within the next decade, 12 outlined goals each fall into one of these four categories: data collection & synthesis, risk assessment & prioritization, conservation practice, and outreach & education. By following this step by step plan, tangible change could be seen in protocols for parasite conservation management, conservation assessments for individual species, and organizations’ capacities to research and conserve parasites. 

The research working group, which was made up of researchers from many career stages and institutions from several countries, was led and co-authored by Skylar Hopkins, PhD, a recent postdoctoral researcher at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, and Colin Carlson, PhD, assistant research professor, with the Center for Global Health Science & Security at Georgetown University. Hopkins, who is now an assistant professor at North Carolina State University, says that “even though we know little to nothing about most parasite species, we can still take action now to conserve parasite biodiversity.”

Parasite conservation might benefit many species beyond 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,” said Giovanni Strona, PhD, an associate professor in ecological data science at the University of Helsinki.

Growing interest in parasite conservation from the academic community indicates a promising future for the parasite plan. The researchers point to successful case studies of parasite conservation to show that when included in conservation projects for their hosts, parasites can also be protected.  

But for the plan to succeed, researchers, conservation practitioners, and educators will need to work together. For example, Kelly Speer, who was completing her PhD at the American Museum of Natural History while participating in researching for the working group, said, “Museums are essential for meeting the 12 key parasite conservation goals, especially in researching parasite diversity, creating resources for educators to use in the classroom, and increasing public awareness of the need and benefit of parasite conservation through exhibits.” Kayce Bell, PhD, Assistant Curator of Mammals at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, adds, “Specimens held in museums allow us to document parasite occurrences and how they change through time, critical data for conservation of any group, particularly understudied organisms such as parasites.”

The 12 goals present ways that people from many backgrounds, including the general public, can get involved in parasite conservation. These methods include identifying which parasites are at risk of extinction, standardizing protocols for including parasites in faunal translocations and ex-situ faunal conservation, participating in community science projects, and creating training opportunities regarding parasite biology for conservation researchers. Through research, advocacy, education, and management, the authors describe how to advance parasite biodiversity conservation. But none of those steps, the study concludes, can succeed without one overarching project: a full inventory of the world’s parasite diversity.

“If species don’t have a name, we can’t save them,” says Carlson. “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.”

The National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) conducts transformational science focused on informing solutions that will allow people and nature to thrive. It is an independent research affiliate of the University of California, Santa Barbara, with a global network and impact. NCEAS works to accelerate scientific discoveries that will enhance our understanding of the world and benefit people and nature, as well as to transform the scientific culture to be more open, efficient, and collaborative. 

This global parasite conservation plan was created by a working group of  scientists from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Georgetown University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Granada, University of Otago, National University of Singapore, U.S. Geological Survey, The University of Western Australia, American Museum of Natural History, University of Helsinki, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and University of Washington.