30 Percent Of Parasite Species May Be Extinct By The Year 2070

Oct 6, 2017

A new UConn study looked at the health of parasites. You know, those horrible ticks and lice and tapeworms that we do our best to avoid? Well, their prospects aren’t looking great and it could have wide-reaching consequences.

Kevin Burgio, a postdoctoral fellow at UConn, co-authored the study, which shows the potential effects of climate change on parasite species.

He says parasites get a bad rap.

“I mean, because if you look at a tapeworm, you know, it’s not like pretty, it's not something you want hanging inside your stomach right? You can't see having a pet parasite, ya know? So I mean, in a way, I get it...I can understand people not liking them much, but it's something that we got to get over.”

Burgio has been studying parasites since 2013 when he was a master’s student at UConn with Colin Carlson and Veronica Bueno. That’s when they realized there weren’t much data out there.

So they formed a group of 17 researchers from all over the world: from Australia to South Africa to Russia. And together they compiled a massive set of data about parasite habitats.

Burgio says, “Once we had those data, we could plug them into our models that kind of determine the current range or distribution of each species, and then using the climate projections, we could project those into the future based on these different climate change scenarios.”

And Burgio says in the worst case scenario, “Roughly 30 percent of parasite species will go extinct, and in the most optimistic scenario, we found that about 10 percent of parasite species will likely go extinct.”

Just like any other organism, parasites have their own role in the food web.

“A good example is that there’s a specific parasite, that, when it infect its host insect, it makes that insect more likely to jump into water which it normally wouldn't do. And when it jumps into the water it's eaten by fish. So without parasites in there, the insect wouldn’t jump into the water and the fish would likely starve or maybe go extinct,” says Burgio.

But because parasites are seriously understudied, Burgio says it’s had to predict how severely the loss of these species will throw off our ecosystems.

The research was published in the September 2017 issue of Science Advances.