International congress highlights importance of parasites for biodiversity

July 19, 2002

MONTREAL, QC, July 19, 2002 - Biodiversity represents more than just cute and cuddly animals or elegantly beautiful plants. The world's biodiversity also includes many organisms that derive their livelihood by living in or on other animals. These organisms, called parasites, are common in all ecosystems but are relatively inconspicuous because they are usually hidden in the innards of other animals. Parasitism may actually be the most common lifestyle among all organisms, and parasites encompass a smorgasbord of shapes and sizes. This is just one of the messages to be presented at a major international scientific symposium entitled "Biodiversity Implications for Parasitology", to be held during the upcoming meeting of the 10th International Congress of Parasitology taking place August 5-9 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. This will be the biggest major meeting addressing the links between parasites and biodiversity ever to take place, and it will consist of presentations by leading scientists from around the world.

"The crucial message is that parasites are important for biodiversity", says symposium co-organizer Dr. David Marcogliese, a research scientist with Environment Canada in Montreal. "Not only do parasites affect major species, but by infecting key species in a habitat, parasites can have effects that cascade all the way through the food web. Therefore, for conservation purposes, it is essential that we understand the roles that parasites play in the environment," adds Dr. Marcogliese.

The symposium will also address the importance of parasites for other pressing environmental issues. For example, climate change and species introductions are linked to the emergence of new parasitic diseases in humans, livestock and wildlife. In fact, parasites may play a role in the loss of biodiversity world-wide. According to symposium organizers, introduced species are one of the major contributors to the spread of new diseases among both animals and humans, and various prestigious invited speakers will address this and other pressing environmental questions.

However, the study of parasites may also provide useful information for environmental and resource management. "Because many parasites have complicated life cycles and depend on predator-prey relationships for transmission from one animal to another, they provide unique information on environmental stress, food webs, and biodiversity," explains Dr. Marcogliese. "Parasites also tell us about the structure and history of ecosystems and can provide analogies or predictive models for how biological communities, such as the highly sensitive systems of the Arctic, may respond to global change linked to climatic variation or other human activities" adds Dr. Eric Hoberg, symposium co-organizer and Curator of the US National Parasite Collection in Beltsville, Maryland. According to Dr. Hoberg "our message to the broader community is one about the societal value of parasitological studies and the special information held by parasitologists that addresses ecosystem integrity, animal and human diseases, and how we can use biodiversity information to reduce threats and risks to human and animal health, and the environment."

In terms of biodiversity, the most recent estimates of species on earth range from 5-30 million, more than half of which are parasitic, only 1.7 million of which are currently known. "Finding and naming all the world's living species and placing them in a predictive classification deserves to be one of the great scientific goals of the new century. This completion of the global census is needed for effective use of species and their products throughout society, including effective conservation practices, and for impact studies of environmental change. In basic science, it is a key element in the maturing of biology and all of its sub-disciplines, including the grasp of ecosystem functioning and evolution. It also offers an unsurpassable adventure: the exploration of a little-known planet" states symposium speaker Daniel R. Brooks, Professor of Zoology at the University of Toronto and member of the Science Board of the All-Species Foundation (www.all-species.org), a non-profit organization dedicated to the complete inventory of all species of life on Earth within the next 25 years.

The parasite biodiversity symposium consists of one major plenary symposium that addresses three major themes: the importance of parasites for managing wildlife populations, the implications for parasitism of human impact on ecosystems, and the biodiversity of parasites themselves. These themes form the basis of three subplenary symposiums. In total, there are 13 internationally-recognized speakers from the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Mexico contributing to the symposium, which will be held in the Vancouver Conference and Exhibition Centre. Over 1000 scientists from around the world are expected to attend.

International Biodiversity Observation Year

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