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Is the world wormier than it used to be? We'll never know without natural history collections
Wood, C.L.; Vanhove, M.P.M. (2022). Is the world wormier than it used to be? We'll never know without natural history collections. J. Anim. Ecol. 92(2): 250-262. https://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1365-2656.13794
In: Journal of Animal Ecology. Blackwell Science/British Ecological Society: Oxford. ISSN 0021-8790; e-ISSN 1365-2656, more
Peer reviewed article  

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Author keywords
    disease, fluid-preserved specimen, museum, natural history collection, parasite, study skin, transmission

Authors  Top 
  • Wood, C.L.
  • Vanhove, M.P.M., more

  • Many disease ecologists and conservation biologists believe that the world is wormier than it used to be—that is, that parasites are increasing in abundance through time. This argument is intuitively appealing. Ecologists typically see parasitic infections, through their association with disease, as a negative endpoint, and are accustomed to attributing negative outcomes to human interference in the environment, so it slots neatly into our worldview that habitat destruction, biodiversity loss and climate change should have the collateral consequence of causing outbreaks of parasites.
  • But surprisingly, the hypothesis that parasites are increasing in abundance through time remains entirely untested for the vast majority of wildlife parasite species. Historical data on parasites are nearly impossible to find, which leaves no baseline against which to compare contemporary parasite burdens. If we want to know whether the world is wormier than it used to be, there is only one major research avenue that will lead to an answer: parasitological examination of specimens preserved in natural history collections.
  • Recent advances demonstrate that, for many specimen types, it is possible to extract reliable data on parasite presence and abundance. There are millions of suitable specimens that exist in collections around the world. When paired with contemporaneous environmental data, these parasitological data could even point to potential drivers of change in parasite abundance, including climate, pollution or host density change.
  • We explain how to use preserved specimens to address pressing questions in parasite ecology, give a few key examples of how collections-based parasite ecology can resolve these questions, identify some pitfalls and workarounds, and suggest promising areas for research. Natural history specimens are ‘parasite time capsules’ that give ecologists the opportunity to test whether infectious disease is on the rise and to identify what forces might be driving these changes over time. This approach will facilitate major advances in a new sub-discipline: the historical ecology of parasitism.

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