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Int J Parasitol. 2005 Jun;35(7):705-16. Epub 2005 Mar 28.

Parasites of the superorganism: are they indicators of ecosystem health?

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St Lawrence Centre, Environment Canada, 105 McGill, 7th Floor, Montreal, Que., Canada H2Y 2E7.


The concept of ecosystem health is derived from analogies with human health, which subsequently leads to the implication that the ecosystem has organismal properties, a 'superorganism' in the Clementsian sense. Its application and usefulness has been the subject of a contentious debate; yet, the term 'ecosystem health' has captured the public's imagination and woven its way into the current lexicon, even incorporated into public policy. However, the application of parasites as bioindicators of ecosystem health poses a curious conundrum. Perceptions of parasites range from mild distaste to sheer disgust among the general public, the media, environmental managers and non-parasitologists in the scientific community. Nevertheless, the biological nature of parasitism incorporates natural characteristics that are informative and useful for environmental management. The helminths in particular have evolved elegant means to ensure their transmission, often relying on complex life cycle interactions that include a variety of invertebrate and vertebrate hosts. The assemblage of these diverse parasites within a host organism potentially reflect that host's trophic position within the food web as well as the presence in the ecosystem of any other organisms that participate in the various parasite life cycles. Perturbations in ecosystem structure and function that affect food web topology will also impact upon parasite transmission, thus affecting parasite species abundance and composition. As such, parasite populations and communities are useful indicators of environmental stress, food web structure and biodiversity. In addition, there may be useful other means to utilise parasitic organisms based on their biology and life histories such as suites or guilds that may be effective bioindicators of particular forms of environmental degradation. The challenge for parasitology is to convince resource managers and fellow scientists that parasites are a natural part of all ecosystems, each species being a potentially useful information unit, and that healthy ecosystems have healthy parasites.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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