Parasites like ticks and worms are often seen as pests and agents of diseases, but ecologists argue many parasites are actually harmless to humans and beneficial to our planet. Some parasites even qualify as endangered species, according to a recently published paper by leading parasite ecologists, and steps need to be taken toward their conservation.
The paper, published in Biological Conservation in August 2020, outlined a 12-step plan for parasite protection. Parasites need to be studied and protected, the paper explains, because of their ecological importance and contributions to biodiversity. Parasite species are some of the most diverse on the planet, contributing to every ecosystem with irreplaceable (if often invisible) functions.
For example, parasites are often crucial to the survival of their host species; they can balance an animal’s immunity and protect their host from toxins and more dangerous pests. Without parasites to regulate animal populations, many ecosystems would be overrun by the host species, creating new pests that the system may not have the capacity to regulate.
However, in conservation fields, parasites are often overlooked because they’re widely known as dangerous and irritating to humans and animals. The parasites that receive the most attention are the ones who spread diseases, like malaria and Dengue fever, so scientists who encounter parasites are normally creating plans to exterminate them, not protect them.
What many don’t understand is that infectious parasites only make up about 4% of the known species, and the remaining parasite populations may be serving our ecosystems more than we realize. In part due to their negative reputation, parasites are largely understudied by scientists, who have only classified about 10% of parasite species. This means we don’t have much information about how to identify the benefits of parasites in the wild, much less how to conserve them.
In their paper, the ecologists express concern over the endangerment of many parasite species. No official list exists for endangered parasites like the lists for endangered birds, mammals, and insects, and this invisibility can lead to accelerated extinction. The paper’s outlined conservation goals include more research and effort toward identifying, taxonomizing, and naming of parasites. They encourage museums, academic labs, and zoos to digitally catalog and share their knowledge about parasites.
The paper also detailed other ways that scientists can protect thise biodiversity provided by parasites. The ecologists are calling for researchers to be more careful about killing or harming parasites they encounter while doing fieldwork. Similarly, they encourage zoos to think carefully before killing the natural parasites living on the animals they relocate.
Parasite conservation doesn’t mean an increase in vector-borne diseases; ecologists don’t plan on protecting dangerous parasites whicho can transmit viruses to people or their pets. As the ecologists explain in their paper, beneficial parasite conservation and eradication of vector parasites aren’t mutually exclusive. With the proper research, both can be achieved simultaneously.