Species loss on spatial patterns and composition of zoonotic parasites

Nyeema C. Harris, Robert R. Dunn

Abstract

Species loss can result in the subsequent loss of affiliate species. Though largely ignored to date, these coextinctions can pose threats to human health by altering the composition, quantity and distribution of zoonotic parasites. We simulated host extinctions from more than 1300 host–parasite associations for 29 North American carnivores to investigate changes in parasite composition and species richness. We also explored the geography of zoonotic parasite richness under three carnivore composition scenarios and examined corresponding levels of human exposure. We found that changes in parasite assemblages differed among parasite groups. Because viruses tend to be generalists, the proportion of parasites that are viruses increased as more carnivores went extinct. Coextinction of carnivore parasites is unlikely to be common, given that few specialist parasites exploit hosts of conservation concern. However, local extirpations of widespread carnivore hosts can reduce overall zoonotic richness and shift distributions of parasite-rich areas. How biodiversity influences disease risks remains the subject of debate. Our results make clear that hosts vary in their contribution to human health risks. As a consequence, so too does the loss (or gain) of particular hosts. Anticipating changes in host composition in future environments may help inform parasite conservation and disease mitigation efforts.

  • Received July 16, 2013.
  • Accepted September 2, 2013.
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