Paradigms for parasite conservation

Eric R Dougherty, Colin J Carlson, Veronica M Bueno, Kevin R Burgio, Carrie A Cizauskas, Christopher F Clements, Dana P Seidel, Nyeema C Harris

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

77 Citations (Scopus)


Parasitic species, which depend directly on host species for their survival, represent a major regulatory force in ecosystems and a significant component of Earth's biodiversity. Yet the negative impacts of parasites observed at the host level have motivated a conservation paradigm of eradication, moving us farther from attainment of taxonomically unbiased conservation goals. Despite a growing body of literature highlighting the importance of parasite-inclusive conservation, most parasite species remain understudied, underfunded, and underappreciated. We argue the protection of parasitic biodiversity requires a paradigm shift in the perception and valuation of their role as consumer species, similar to that of apex predators in the mid-20th century. Beyond recognizing parasites as vital trophic regulators, existing tools available to conservation practitioners should explicitly account for the unique threats facing dependent species. We built upon concepts from epidemiology and economics (e.g., host-density threshold and cost-benefit analysis) to devise novel metrics of margin of error and minimum investment for parasite conservation. We define margin of error as the risk of accidental host extinction from misestimating equilibrium population sizes and predicted oscillations, while minimum investment represents the cost associated with conserving the additional hosts required to maintain viable parasite populations. This framework will aid in the identification of readily conserved parasites that present minimal health risks. To establish parasite conservation, we propose an extension of population viability analysis for host-parasite assemblages to assess extinction risk. In the direst cases, ex situ breeding programs for parasites should be evaluated to maximize success without undermining host protection. Though parasitic species pose a considerable conservation challenge, adaptations to conservation tools will help protect parasite biodiversity in the face of an uncertain environmental future.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)724-33
Number of pages10
JournalConservation Biology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2016


  • Animals
  • Biodiversity
  • Conservation of Natural Resources
  • Ecosystem
  • Host-Parasite Interactions
  • Parasites


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