Kevin D. Lafferty talks with
ScienceWatch.com and answers a few questions about
this month's Fast Moving Front in the field of
Environment/Ecology. The author has also sent along
images of their work.
Article: Parasites dominate food web
KD;Dobson, AP;Kuris, AM
Journal: PROC NAT ACAD SCI USA, 103 (30): 11211-11216 JUL
Addresses: Univ Calif Santa Barbara, Inst Marine Sci, US
Geol Survey, Western Ecol Res Ctr, Santa Barbara, CA 93106
Univ Calif Santa Barbara, Inst Marine Sci, US Geol Survey,
Western Ecol Res Ctr, Santa Barbara, CA 93106 USA.
Univ Calif Santa Barbara, Inst Marine Sci, Dept Ecol Evolut
& Marine Biol, Santa Barbara, CA 93106 USA.
Princeton Univ, Dept Ecol & Evolutionary Biol,
Princeton, NJ 08544 USA.
Why do you think your paper is highly
Publishing in a highly ranked journal (PNAS) probably is a key
factor for the success of this paper. In addition, we have had the
opportunity to present the findings at numerous symposia and seminars,
where they have been well received by ecologists.
Does it describe a new discovery, methodology, or
synthesis of knowledge?
The paper presents new methods and a new perspective for ecology. It also
has a simple message: parasites matter to food webs.
Would you summarize the significance of your paper
in layman's terms?
web of Carpinteria Salt
Marsh. Red spheres are
yellow spheres are
Food webs form the conceptual background for community ecology but have
rarely included parasites. Parasites are consumers that represent half of
biodiversity and alter basic properties of network structure, indicating
parasites should not be ignored. Including them changes the way we view
fundamental patterns in ecology.
How did you become involved in this research and
were any particular problems encountered along the way?
We are parasite ecologists trying to understand how parasites interact with
ecosystems. Network theory seemed to be a promising avenue to explore the
questions we were interested in, but we found we first needed to bring
parasites into networks. The PNAS paper represents preliminary
work for our broader research program.
Where do you see your research leading in the
We are presently bringing network scientists together with disease
ecologists as a working group at the National Center for Ecological
Analysis and Synthesis. Incorporating parasites into food webs reveals gaps
in existing network theory—particularly in terms of robustness and
top-down effects—that we are trying to fill. As I write, we are at
Palmyra Atoll in the central Pacific establishing a
new field site where we will describe a food web from scratch, putting
parasites and free-living species on equal footing.
Do you foresee any social or political implications
for your research?
Humans and their infectious diseases are imbedded in food webs. A network
approach could be very instructive in helping to understand second-order
complexities in human health that arise due to environmental change.
For instance, we are working in Senegal, where we are investigating the
hypothesis that human alteration to food webs has increased human
schistosomiasis. Here, damming has created barriers for prawns to move
upstream. In upstream areas, snails, perhaps freed from predation by
prawns, become abundant and serve as intermediate hosts for Schistosoma
mansoni worms, leading to very high rates of infection in the local
population. Restoring this food web could indirectly reduce disease.
Kevin D. Lafferty, Ph.D.
Western Ecological Research Center
USGS Channel Islands Field Station
UC Santa Barbara Sub Station
Marine Science Institute
University of California, Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, CA, USA Web |