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Scientists at the USGS Western Ecological Research Center study the many ecosystems of the Pacific Southwest. Follow our expeditions and projects through this outreach page, and learn more about your local landscape with our library of Outreach Factsheets and photos. Thanks for joining us!

Ben Young Landis
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Email: blandis@usgs.gov
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A parasitic isopod, which is related to rolley pollies, one of the larger parasites encountered by the researchers in the estuaries.  --Photographer: Ryan Hechinger/UCSB
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Tiny Parasites Help Revise Major Ecological Theory
THURSDAY JUL 21 2011

An old theory in ecology is that in any ecosystem, a small-sized animal species will be more populous than a large species.

All you need is a summer picnic to prove the point: your barbecue might end up attracting thousands of tiny ants — but only a few rotund squirrels.

Equations based on ecological theories like this one help scientists and wildlife managers predict resource abundance and the health of animal populations, such as to understand which species are naturally rare and approximately how rare they should be. But a new analysis published today in the journal Science has revised this particular rule of thumb. 

“The theory should really also say ‘depending on your position in the food chain,’” says Ryan Hechinger, lead author of the study and an associate research biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Hechinger conducted the study along with Kevin Lafferty, a lead scientist at WERC's Santa Barbara/Channel Islands Field Station.

Animal populations are often limited by their food supply and metabolic rate. A tiny animal burns fewer calories than a big animal, says Hechinger, so it needs to consume less food than a large animal to stay alive.

“This is why small animals are usually more common than big ones,” adds Hechinger. “But the food chain is also important. There’s less food to go around the higher up the food chain you go. This is why top consumers like mountain lions are relatively rare.”

But ecologists know that despite being tiny, parasites also feed high up in food chains. “For example, a tapeworm that infests a deer feeds at the same food chain position as a mountain lion,” Hechinger says. “So we wondered whether parasite populations might be less common than you’d expect given the old rule.”

To explore whether tiny parasites exhibit the abundance patterns of top consumers, Hechinger, Lafferty and colleagues studied three estuary ecosystems: Carpinteria Salt Marsh in Santa Barbara County, CA, and Estero de Punta Banda and Bahía Falsa in Baja California, Mexico.

They counted and weighed parasites and other animals before confirming that parasites were indeed less populous than other similarly sized animals. “But once we accounted for the food chain factor, a single, revised equation was able to explain observed population patterns for both parasites and other animals,” says Lafferty

The revised theory has wide implications for researchers and managers, Lafferty says. “We can now more easily predict the abundance and biomass production of all animal species in an ecosystem -- including parasites.”

-- Ben Young Landis

Top Image: A parasitic isopod almost one centimeter long, which infests estuary crabs via "parasitic castration" and blocking the host animal's ability to reproduce. Image courtesy of Ryan Hechinger/UC Santa Barbara.

One of the field teams actively sampling animals at one of the mudflat study sites.  --Photographer: Joshua Smith/UCSB
Field researchers must endure the mud and muck of the wetlands as they sampled estuary habitats for this parasite study. Image courtesy of Joshua Smith/UC Santa Barbara.

Overview of Bahia Falsa, part of one of the estuaries at which researchers quantified the abundance of most parasitic and free-living animal species. An extinct volcano is visible in the background. --Photographer: Todd Huspeni/UCSB
A view looking over Bahia Falsa in Mexico, one of the estuaries sampled as part of the study. Image courtesy of Todd Huspeni/UC Santa Barbara.

Armand Kuris, Kevin Lafferty and Ryan Hechinger of UCSB --Photographer: George Foulsham, Office of Public Affairs, UCSB
Study authors Armand Kuris (back left) and Ryan Hechinger (back right) of UC Santa Barbara and Kevin Lafferty (front) of USGS. Image courtesy of George Foulsham/UC Santa Barbara.

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