Diverse effects of parasites in ecosystems: linking interdependent processes



Community ecologists generally recognize the importance of species – such as pollinators – that have clear positive effects within ecosystems. However, parasites – usually regarded in terms of their detrimental effects on the individuals they infect – can also have positive impacts on other species in the community. We now recognize that parasites influence species coexistence and extirpation by altering competition, predation, and herbivory, and that these effects can, in turn, influence ecosystem properties. Parasites and pathogens act as ecosystem engineers, alter energy budgets and nutrient cycling, and influence biodiversity. Equally, because ecosystem properties – such as biodiversity – affect parasite populations, there is the potential for feedback between parasitism and ecosystem states. Using examples from animal and plant systems, we examine this potential bidirectional interdependence and challenge the conventional wisdom that parasites have only negative or inconsequential impacts on ecological communities.