A reconstruction of parasite burden reveals one century of climate-associated parasite decline


Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology

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Long-term data allow ecologists to assess trajectories of population abundance. Without this context, it is impossible to know whether a taxon is thriving or declining to extinction. For parasites of wildlife, there are few long-term data—a gap that creates an impediment to managing parasite biodiversity and infectious threats in a changing world. We produced a century-scale time series of metazoan parasite abundance and used it to test whether parasitism is changing in Puget Sound, United States, and, if so, why. We performed parasitological dissection of fluid-preserved specimens held in natural history collections for eight fish species collected between 1880 and 2019. We found that parasite taxa using three or more obligately required host species—a group that comprised 52% of the parasite taxa we detected—declined in abundance at a rate of 10.9% per decade, whereas no change in abundance was detected for parasites using one or two obligately required host species. We tested several potential mechanisms for the decline in 3+-host parasites and found that parasite abundance was negatively correlated with sea surface temperature, diminishing at a rate of 38% for every 1 °C increase. Although the temperature effect was strong, it did not explain all variability in parasite burden, suggesting that other factors may also have contributed to the long-term declines we observed. These data document one century of climate-associated parasite decline in Puget Sound—a massive loss of biodiversity, undetected until now.

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Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

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