The mere presence of parasites can have a negative effect on hosts


The mere presence of parasites can have a negative effect on hosts, according to new research by University of Alberta parasitologists.

The study, led by U of A associate professor Lien Luong, examined the effects on fruit flies living among parasitic mites. It found that flies exposed to, but not infected by parasitic mites expend more energy, have a shorter lifespan, and produce fewer offspring than those that are not.

“For fruit flies and other organisms, there are costs associated with just living in an infectious world—even if you’re not actually infected,” said Luong. “And these indirect costs can have long-term consequences.”

An infectious environment

The research illustrates a concept called the ecology of fear, and is one of the first studies to show this phenomenon at play in the relationship between parasites and host organisms.

Environmental indicators of predators or parasites, including smells, sounds and visuals, can result in consequences for prey or host animals, including changed foraging behaviour and habitat use, and in the case of fruit flies, behavioural and physiological changes.

“We found that flies that lived near mites had reduced longevity, or didn’t live as long, and produced fewer offspring than those who did not live near mites,” explained Luong.

“We also saw an increased metabolic rate, which makes sense. Using energy in response to nearby parasites means having less energy for other important activities, such as foraging for food or reproducing.”

The results demonstrate that we may have underestimated the impact of parasites on host populations, said Luong who added that when we think about infectious disease, we generally think about the effects in terms of host morbidity and mortality—the direct effects of becoming infected.

“This study shows that indirect effects have a fitness cost, which suggests that the negative impact of parasites is even greater than we have previously predicted,” he explained.

The paper, “Ecology of fear: environment-dependent parasite avoidance among ovipositing Drosophila,” was published in Parasitology.

Parasites have historically been considered a scourge, deserving of annihilation. Although parasite eradications rank among humanity’s greatest achievements, new research is shedding light on the collateral effects of parasite loss. Here, we explore a “world without parasites”: a thought experiment for illuminating the ecological roles that parasites play in ecosystems. While there is robust evidence for the effects of parasites on host individuals (eg affecting host vital rates), this exercise highlights how little we know about the influence of parasites on communities and ecosystems (eg altering energy flow through food webs). We present hypotheses for novel, interesting, and general effects of parasites. These hypotheses are largely untested, and should be considered a springboard for future research. While many uncertainties exist, the available evidence suggests that a world without parasites would be very different from the world we know, with effects extending from host individuals to populations, communities, and even ecosystems.

What would happen if all parasites disappeared? This intriguing thought experiment, recently posed in BBC Earth’s “Strange & Beautiful” series (Jones 2015), is a useful exercise for considering the ecological roles of parasites in ecosystems. So far, humanity has managed to drive only one of its parasites to extinction: Variola, the viral genus that causes smallpox (Panel 1).

Until it was eradicated in 1980 through global-scale public health efforts, naturally occurring smallpox was one of the most dominant drivers of mortality in recorded history, killing 500 million people in the 20th century alone (Koplow 2003). By many metrics, the elimination of viruses, bacteria, protozoa, and parasitic arthropods and worms (here, collectively referred to as “parasites”) would contribute to reduced rates of human mortality, less disability, improvements in quality of life (Murray et al. 2012), and even reduced poverty (Bonds et al. 2010). The disappearance of parasites would also substantially benefit livestock production (Perry and Randolph 1999) and wildlife conservation (Daszak et al. 2000), particularly in developing countries.

Panel 1

Controlling, eliminating, and eradicating parasites

Humans have been attempting to manage the transmission of parasites for hundreds and possibly thousands of years. For example, variolation – an early vaccination technique by which recipients were intentionally exposed to scabs, fluids, or clothing of smallpox patients, usually those who had lived through a mild form of the disease – was practiced in India as early as the 16th century (Plotkin and Plotkin 2008). Efforts to manage parasite transmission have met with varying levels of success. Studying the outcomes of such attempts may offer opportunities for understanding the ecological roles that parasites play in ecosystems.


Here, we adopt the following terminology, after Dowdle (1999):

  • – Eradication: worldwide incidence of infection is reduced to zero
  • – Elimination: incidence of infection is reduced to zero in a defined geographic area, but transmission continues in other parts of the world
  • – Control: prevalence of a parasite is reduced to a level that is locally acceptable

Parasites of humans

Although humanity has succeeded in eradicating only one human parasite – the smallpox virus (Variola spp) – countless attempts to control other parasites have been made, some highly successful (Center for Global Development 2004). International efforts to eradicate polio (Aylward and Tangermann 2011) and guinea worm (Al-Awadi et al. 2014) are nearing completion. Numerous other diseases – including lymphatic filariasis, onchocerciasis, Chagas disease, and leprosy – have been the focus of international efforts. These are considered by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be potentially “eradicable” (Dowdle 1999), and for many of these diseases, elimination has been achieved in some regions (Center for Global Development 2004).

According to the WHO, a key feature of “eradicable” diseases is their specificity to the human species; it would be much more difficult to eradicate a parasite species that could “bide its time” in a reservoir host or as spores or eggs in the environment (Center for Global Development 2004).

Although strides have been made toward eradication, elimination, and control of many human parasites, there have also been many failures. Malaria – the disease responsible for more deaths over the course of human history than any other (Garnham 1966) – has been intensively targeted for eradication since 1955, with only local or regional progress toward elimination (Alonso et al. 2011), despite substantial investments ($630 million invested in malaria research and development funding in 2011 alone; Moran et al. 2013).

These failures are largely due to the evolution of resistance to pesticides among mosquitoes and anti-malarial drugs among Plasmodium parasites (Alonso et al. 2011). The Schistosoma spp, causative agents of schistosomiasis, have proved similarly recalcitrant to control (Chitsulo et al. 2000). Despite many national-level control programs (Rollinson et al. 2013), schistosomiasis remains very prevalent – it currently infects about 240 million people, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa (WHO 2013).

Parasites of non-human animals

Substantial efforts have also been invested in eradicating or eliminating the parasites of non-human animals, including domestic animals and wildlife. To date, the only animal disease to be (purposefully) globally eradicated is rinderpest.

When the success of this eradication effort was announced in 2011, it was only the second intentional eradication to have been achieved in human history – after smallpox (Roeder et al. 2013). Native to Central Asia, rinderpest was introduced into Africa in 1887 with Indian cattle (Scott 1998). The morbillivirus devastated populations of cattle, buffalo, antelope, giraffe, wildebeest, and warthogs throughout the African continent (Dobson et al. 2011).

Long-term monitoring of wildlife in and around Serengeti National Park revealed the ecological outcomes of this eradication: in the absence of rinderpest-induced mortality, herbivore abundance increased several times over, triggering increases in the abundance of their predators (lions and hyenas), reductions in the frequency of fire (due to more efficient grazing and less unconsumed, flammable grass), a shift of grassland ecosystems to Acacia-dominated woodland and bush, and a shift of the Serengeti from a source of atmospheric carbon to a sink (Figure 1Holdo et al. 2009Dobson et al. 2011).

These considerable ecological changes were among the first demonstrations of the important role that parasites can play.

Although the example of rinderpest on the African continent is one familiar to ecologists, the disease was not native to Africa and its eradication was therefore akin to ecological restoration.

Back in its indigenous Indian range, rinderpest’s ecological role – and the ecological effects of its removal – were poorly documented. India was declared rinderpest-free in 2004 (Global Rinderpest Eradication Program 2011) and the last recorded instance of rinderpest in South Asia occurred in 2000 (Roeder et al. 2013).

Eradication has undoubtedly benefited the subcontinent: the economic benefit–cost ratio for rinderpest eradication in India has been estimated at >60, primarily because livestock can now be freely exported (Roeder et al. 2013). Prior to its eradication, the disease also affected wild mammals in the region, including threatened gaur (Bos gaurusAshokkumar et al. 2012) and Asiatic wild buffalo (Bubalus bubalisChoudhury 1994). Whether any regional ecological impacts have resulted is unknown.

An additional animal disease has been globally eradicated, although this came not as the result of a purposeful campaign, but as an unintended consequence of conservation. In a last-ditch effort to rescue the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) from extinction, the surviving few birds were removed from the wild into captivity and de-loused with pesticides. This act eradicated the condor louse (Colpocephalum californici), a species that has been found on no other bird host and is presumed to be extinct (Dunn 2009), although its host has since rebounded. Whether there have been any ecological impacts of the louse’s extinction is also unknown.

Why consider the ecological outcomes of parasite eradication?

Eradication efforts – which can be costly – usually target only those parasites of major public health, economic, or conservation concern (Stringer and Linklater 2014). Each successful eradication effort outlined above was an unmitigated triumph for humankind – in our opinion, no ecological argument can overshadow the benefit of, for example, ridding humanity of the scourge of smallpox. Nonetheless, we believe it is worth considering the ecological functions that are lost when parasites are eliminated from an ecosystem, particularly parasites of ecologically influential wildlife species. Here, we identify several priority research areas:

  1. Identify opportunities to experimentally assess the ecological role of parasites:Exclusion experiments – those in which a taxon is excluded from an area and ecological effects of this exclusion are quantified – have driven tremendous progress in ecology (Lubchenco and Real 1991). Parasite eliminations can serve as “natural experiments” that reveal the functional roles of parasites in ecosystems, providing critical information that would otherwise be difficult to obtain. Indeed, some of the most informative studies of parasites’ ecological roles to date have used control programs as “natural experiments” (eg Holdo et al. 2009) or have experimentally manipulated the presence of parasites (eg Hudson et al. 1998).
  2. Anticipate unintended consequences of parasite eradication: Collateral ecological impacts can arise from the eradication or elimination of an animal parasite. For example, the eradication of rinderpest and subsequent cessation of vaccination may have led to recent upticks in the prevalence of another ungulate morbillivirus in Africa, peste des petits ruminants (Libeau et al. 2011). The potential for such unintended consequences should be assessed in a risk-benefit analysis before attempts at parasite control are made (Stringer and Linklater 2014).
  3. Identify opportunities to reap economic and conservation benefit from parasite eradication: Conversely, parasite eradication or elimination may have important economic and conservation benefits. An accurate assessment of potential benefits is also a key component of risk–benefit analyses (Stringer and Linklater 2014).

But while the eradication of disease agents is critically important for ensuring human well-being, parasites often play important yet underappreciated roles in nature.

Every ecosystem on Earth contains parasites; indeed, virtually every metazoan hosts at least one parasite species (Poulin and Morand 2000). Parasites represent ∼40% of described species (Dobson et al. 2008) and are at least twice as rich in species as their vertebrate hosts (Poulin and Morand 2004).

Considering only viruses in the ocean, a projected ∼4 × 1030 species exist, with the standing stock of carbon in viral biomass estimated at ∼200 megatons (Suttle 2005).

Despite this ubiquity and abundance, the diversity of parasites is poorly known (Poulin and Morand 2000) and our understanding of parasites’ ecological influence remains rudimentary (Gomez et al. 2012Hatcher et al. 2012).

Here, we explore a “world without parasites” as a vehicle for identifying the ecological changes that accompany the elimination or loss of infectious organisms. The elimination of all parasites is improbable and perhaps impossible, but as Holt (2010) noted, “it can be illuminating to ponder all kinds of implausible and radical scenarios, in effect bracketing the real world with visions of possible worlds”.

We limit our discussion to parasites of animals, focusing on empirical and theoretical research on parasites’ influence at several levels of ecological organization (individual, population, community, and ecosystem), posing hypotheses for general mechanisms by which parasites may be ecologically influential, and identifying attributes of parasites, hosts, and ecosystems that may predict a strong ecological influence of parasites (Panel 2, see p 433–434). We focus on ecological effects of parasites, but evolutionary effects are also likely to be important (Holt 2010Stringer and Linklater 2014).

We emphasize those cases where parasites’ effects are likely to be consistent across contexts, excluding impacts of parasites that are likely to be highly context-specific. The studies reviewed below suggest that the influence of parasites, though frequently hidden, can be substantial.

Panel 2

Hypotheses for general roles of parasites in ecosystems

Here, we present some general, novel, and interesting hypotheses regarding the roles of parasites in ecosystems. These address broad questions: which ecological processes are most likely to change as the result of parasite removal? Under what conditions will parasite effects be strongest? Which parasite effects might be general across ecosystems? For each hypothesis, we sketch a brief explanation or example, and define conditions under which we expect the hypothesis might hold. These hypotheses await testing.

Individual level

Elimination of one parasite species might lead to increased abundance of other parasite species

Most free-living organisms – including humans – host numerous species of symbionts, including viruses, bacteria, fungi, worms, and arthropods. These symbionts can interact with one another directly (eg through predation or interference competition) or indirectly (eg via immunity-mediated apparent competition; Stringer and Linklater 2014).

Not all of the symbionts that live on and in humans are parasitic, but even those that are may still confer a net benefit if they deter other, more deleterious pathogens (Costello et al. 2012).


Anti-helminthic treatment increases risk of Giardia infection in humans, and anti-protozoal treatment increases the risk of hookworm infection – probably the result of competitive inhibition (competition between parasites) or cross-immunity (susceptibility of one parasite to the immune response provoked by the other) between worms and protozoans (Martin et al. 2013).

  • When there are parasites in the system that are ecologically similar to the parasite targeted for eradication (and therefore likely to engage in intra-host competition)
  • When there are parasites in the system that are closely related to the parasite targeted for eradication (and are therefore likely to be affected by the same component of host immunity), but are unaffected by the eradication effort (eg Libeau et al. 2011)
  • When parasite interactions (direct or indirect) are an important determinant of parasite community composition (ie when intra-host interactions matter), as may be true for highly abundant parasites, those with strong cross-reactive immunity, or when priority effects are strong
Removal of one parasite species might lead to reduced abundance of another parasite species

Infection with the parasitic worms that cause human urinary schistosomiasis (Schistosoma haematobium) increases the risk of contracting HIV for women in sub-Saharan Africa (Rollinson 2009). Elimination of schistosomiasis through distribution of anti-helminthic drugs has been suggested as an approach for controlling the African HIV epidemic (Hotez et al. 2009).

  • When the parasite removed depresses the efficacy of host immune defenses
  • When the parasites in question are less likely to compete (eg are ecologically or phylogenetically distinct) or trigger different branches of the host’s immune defenses (eg Ezenwa et al. 2010)
  • When host immune function is an important regulator of parasite abundance or transmission potential

Population level

Removal of “keystone” parasite species or groups will influence host populations

“Keystone” species have strong trophic links to many other species, and extirpating them can have important effects on food webs. Great theoretical progress has been made in predicting the result of a species’ extinction.

This work demonstrates that – for free-living taxa – outcomes of extinction are variable from species to species, with many weak interactors and a few “keystone” species (Wootton and Emmerson 2005). Do parasites follow the same pattern? If so, can we predict which parasitic species are likely to be “keystones”?


In some salt marsh ecosystems of western North America, trematode biomass exceeds that of any other parasite group (Kuris et al. 2008). Standing trematode biomass and trematode production of infective stages (cercariae) each exceed the biomass of top predators (Kuris et al. 2008). Therefore, the influence of trematodes on energy flow in these ecosystems is probably substantial.


Ecologically influential (“keystone”) parasites should tend to be:

  • Those that infect ecologically influential (“keystone”) hosts
  • Those that commandeer a substantial proportion of host biomass (eg parasitic castrators, Kuris et al. 2008; behavior manipulators, Sato et al. 2011)
  • Those that can behaviorally manipulate their hosts, because these parasites might affect energy flow by strengthening predator–prey links (eg trophically transmitted trematode metacercariae in killifish; Lafferty and Morris 1996) or causing the host to move into a novel habitat (eg nematomorphs that induce “water drive” in cricket hosts; Sato et al. 2011)
Removal of a parasite species might lead to loss of regulation of the host population

Hudson et al. (1998) administered anti-helminthic drugs to red grouse and observed a dampening of the population’s boom-and-bust cycles.

  • When parasites are highly host-specific
  • When parasites are pathogenic
  • When ecosystems are stable and where abiotic factors (eg drought, desiccation, fire, wave action) do not limit host populations
  • When hosts are high trophic-level species, and the likelihood of control by predators is therefore lower

Community level

Removal of a parasite species may alter community composition

Parasites have variable effects on communities: for instance, they can either increase (eg Thomas et al. 1995; Mouritsen and Poulin 2005) or decrease (eg Tompkins et al. 2003) coexistence and community-level species diversity.


While there may be few general ways in which parasites change community composition, we predict that the conditions that favor a strong effect of parasites on community composition include:

  • When hosts are abundant and/or ecologically influential
  • When hosts vary in their tolerance to parasitic infection
  • When parasites are highly host-specific, and the magnitude of parasite impacts is therefore highly divergent among species in the free-living assemblage
  • When parasites are highly pathogenic
  • When ecosystems are stable and where abiotic factors (eg drought, desiccation, fire, wave action) do not limit host populations
  • When the host community is strongly influenced by interspecific interactions rather than other forces (eg dispersal, stochastic effects)
Removal of a parasite species may change a community’s invasibility

The removal of parasites might make communities more difficult to invade (because release from parasitic enemies puts natives and invasives on “equal footing” or removes the “biological weapons” that might otherwise facilitate invasion) or easier to invade (because removal of parasites removes the “biotic resistance” of native communities).

Possible tests
  • Experimentally assembled parasite-rich and parasite-free communities
  • Comparing the number or proportion of invasive species across habitats that naturally vary in the number of parasites they support
  • Experimentally manipulating the number of parasite species or individuals (eg using anti-helminthic drugs) in a habitat experiencing an ongoing or progressive invasion
  • Identifying the cause of failure in intentional introductions
Removal of parasite species that regulate populations may increase predation rates

Parasites drain the resources of their hosts. In the absence of parasites, this energy can be exploited by other natural enemies, including predators.


Before its eradication, rinderpest devastated populations of cattle, buffalo, antelope, giraffe, wildebeest, and warthogs throughout the African continent (Dobson et al. 2011). After Africa became rinderpest-free, the abundance of lions and hyenas increased, probably due to increased availability of prey (Figure 1Holdo et al. 2009Dobson et al. 2011).

  • When parasites strongly regulate the host/prey species and removal of parasites releases this regulation
  • When the host/prey species is abundant and ecologically influential
Removal of manipulative parasite species may reduce predation rates

Manipulations of host behavior or morphology that increase susceptibility of an intermediate host to a downstream host are among the most common manipulations known and – in many cases – the behavioral manipulation is accompanied by an increase in the lipid and glycogen content of the intermediate host (Lefevre et al. 2009).

By making prey easier to catch and more valuable as food resources, manipulative parasites may functionally increase predation rates and, by extension, the amount of resources accessible to predators.

  • When manipulation drives a large change from host’s uninfected state
  • When parasites are abundant and manipulation is common among prey individuals
  • When the host is abundant or ecologically influential

Ecosystem level

Removal of regulating parasite species may increase flow of energy to higher trophic levels

Parasites drain the resources of their hosts. In the absence of parasites, this energy can be exploited by other natural enemies, including predators, with additional downstream effects on energy flow.

  • When parasites strongly regulate the host/prey populations and removal of parasites releases this regulation
  • When the host/prey species is abundant and ecologically influential
Removal of manipulative parasite species may reduce flow of energy to higher trophic levels

We hypothesize that manipulative parasites are responsible for subsidizing populations of predators, shunting energy that would otherwise fail to flow to higher trophic levels; this is accomplished through host behavioral manipulation to improve the odds of trophic transmission. If the loss of predator fitness due to parasitic infection does not outweigh this gain, this could represent a subsidy that lifts resource constraints on predators (Lafferty et al. 2000).

Therefore, a world without manipulative parasites may also be a world with fewer predators (Figure 3).

Given the commonness of behavioral manipulations that facilitate trophic transmission, this could be a general effect across ecosystems.

  • When manipulation drives a large change from host’s uninfected state
  • When parasites are abundant and manipulation is common among prey individuals
  • When host is abundant or ecologically influential
  • When parasite has high biomass / secondary production
Removal of a parasite species may alter across-ecosystem subsidies

Some parasites induce their hosts to move from habitat preferred by the host to habitat suitable for the parasite (eg Hanelt et al. 2005), increasing the exchange of energy and materials (in the form of host and parasite biomass) across ecosystems.

Others may reduce host movement by sapping host resources, by suppressing overall activity levels, or by reducing the abundance of a host that otherwise might traverse ecosystem boundaries (eg Dobson et al. 2011).

Is there any consistency in the effect of parasites on across-ecosystem processes? We anticipate that these will be extremely context-dependent effects.

See Web References for all references in Panel 2

Individuals and populations

The fitness effects of parasites on host individuals, although negative by definition (Combes 2001), vary strongly among species.

A parasite may reduce its host’s growth, prevent it from reproducing, or change its behavior. Parasites may even have positive collateral effects on a host (eg by competing with other, more virulent parasites within the same host [Panel 2, see p 433–434]). When individual-level effects accrue, parasites may also influence host populations in a variety of ways.

Parasites influence host immunity

A growing body of research illustrates the ecological importance of within-host interactions among parasites, as well as interactions between parasites and the host’s immune system. Although co-infections would be impossible in a world without parasites, we address interactions among co-infecting parasites in Panel 2 (see p 433–434).

Even without co-infecting species, the absence of parasites can drive unexpected outcomes in host health, through effects on host immune function. Some chronic illnesses of humans – including allergies and autoimmune diseases – have been linked to a lack of exposure to parasites, particularly worms (the “hygiene hypothesis”; Okada et al. 2010).

Paradoxically, parasites may have net positive fitness benefits for hosts if the immunologic consequence of parasite absence takes a sufficiently high toll on host fitness (Holt 2010Stringer and Linklater 2014). In the absence of parasites, hosts should shed costly – and useless – immune defenses. But nature abhors a vacuum. Hosts that initially lost their immunity would later be susceptible to re-infection by newly evolved parasites (Stringer and Linklater 2014Jones 2015).

Parasites affect the dynamics of host populations

Many parasites affect the rate of host population growth and total population size. Indeed, there are numerous examples demonstrating regulation of wild host populations by parasites, including both “micro-parasites” and “macro-parasites”, whose fitness effects on hosts are independent and dependent, respectively, on the number of initial infecting transmissive stages (Lafferty and Kuris 2002).

For instance, crustacean parasites such as isopods and copepods (Figure 2) can reduce growth, reproduction, and survivorship of coral reef fishes, resulting in population-level regulation of hosts (Forrester and Finley 2006).

In British heathland ecosystems, experimental application of anti-helminthic drugs (which clear red grouse of infections with the parasitic nematode Trichostrongylus tenuis) dampened the boom-and-bust cycles that characterize the population dynamics of infected grouse (Hudson et al. 1998). But parasites need not kill their hosts to exert regulatory effects on host populations; many parasites castrate their hosts (eg the bacterium Pasteuria ramosa in Daphnia spp; Ebert et al. 2004), thereby regulating host populations (Decaestecker et al. 2005). Removal of such influential parasites may lead to loss of regulation of host populations and an increase in host abundance (Panel 2, see p 433–434).

More information: Monika K. Mierzejewski et al. Ecology of fear: environment-dependent parasite avoidance among ovipositing Drosophila, Parasitology (2019). DOI: 10.1017/S0031182019000854

Journal information: Parasitology
Provided by University of Alberta


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