UC SANTA BARBARA (US) — By studying parasites within an ecosystem, scientists have uncovered simple ecological rules that apply to all animals and predict how common they are.
“This includes birds, fishes, insects, crabs, clams, and all the parasites that live inside and on them,” says Ryan Hechinger, associate research biologist with the Marine Science Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “They all seem to follow the same rule. And the rule is simple. You can predict how common an animal is just by knowing how big an individual is and how high in the food chain it is.”
Body size is important because it determines how much food an animal needs, explains Hechinger, who is lead author of the study published this week in the journal Science. A given amount of food supports fewer big animals than small animals because each big animal needs more food. The food chain is important because the higher an animal is in the food chain, the less food there is and, therefore, the less common that species is.
According to the scientists, they did something no one has previously done: They went into an ecosystem and paid attention to parasites, treating them as equal players with other animals.
“We realized that despite being small, parasites feed high up the food chain and might break the rule that smaller animals are more common,” says co-author Kevin Lafferty, ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey at UC Santa Barbara.
The data were collected at three estuaries in Southern California and Baja California. The researchers counted and weighed parasites and other animals before documenting that parasites were indeed less common than other small animals.
“Paying attention to parasites was central to the study,” says co-author Armand Kuris, professor of zoology at UC Santa Barbara. “Parasites are at least half of all biodiversity. And they are different in some very basic ways than other life forms. However, ecological science usually ignores them. How can we possibly understand how life works if we don’t look at half of the species—the parasites?
“Considering parasites helped us find the right theory, see the true patterns in nature, and better test the theory,” Kuris says. “In addition to body size, the general rule for animal abundance must factor in the food chain and let both small and large animals be top consumers.”
The scientists also discovered a second general rule: that the amount of biomass produced by a population does not depend on the body size of the animals in the population, or on what type of animal—bird, fish, crab, or parasite.
“If this rule is general, it means an aphid population can produce the same amount of biomass as a deer population,” says Lafferty. “Furthermore, tapeworms that feed on the deer population produce less biomass than the deer, but can produce the same as a mountain lion population that also feeds on the deer.”
“Predicting animal abundance is one of the most basic and useful things ecological science can provide for management and basic research,” says Hechinger. “This simple rule helps with that because it may apply to all life forms and can easily be applied to complex ecosystems in the real world.”
Additional co-authors include researchers from Princeton University, the Santa Fe Institute, and the University of New Mexico. The research was partly funded by the joint National Science Foundation-National Institutes of Health’s Ecology of Infectious Diseases program.
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