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Climate change, parasitism and the structure of intertidal ecosystems

  • R. Poulin (a1) and K.N. Mouritsen (a2)

Abstract

Evidence is accumulating rapidly showing that temperature and other climatic variables are driving many ecological processes. At the same time, recent research has highlighted the role of parasitism in the dynamics of animal populations and the structure of animal communities. Here, the likely interactions between climate change and parasitism are discussed in the context of intertidal ecosystems. Firstly, using the soft-sediment intertidal communities of Otago Harbour, New Zealand, as a case study, parasites are shown to be ubiquitous components of intertidal communities, found in practically all major animal species in the system. With the help of specific examples from Otago Harbour, it is demonstrated that parasites can regulate host population density, influence the diversity of the entire benthic community, and affect the structure of the intertidal food web. Secondly, we document the extreme sensitivity of cercarial production in parasitic trematodes to increases in temperature, and discuss how global warming could lead to enhanced trematode infections. Thirdly, the results of a simulation model are used to argue that parasite-mediated local extinctions of intertidal animals are a likely outcome of global warming. Specifically, the model predicts that following a temperature increase of less than 4°C, populations of the amphipod Corophium volutator, a hugely abundant tube-building amphipod on the mudflats of the Danish Wadden Sea, are likely to crash repeatedly due to mortality induced by microphallid trematodes. The available evidence indicates that climate-mediated changes in local parasite abundance will have significant repercussions for intertidal ecosystems. On the bright side, the marked effects of even slight increases in temperature on cercarial production in trematodes could form the basis for monitoring programmes, with these sensitive parasites providing early warning signals of the environmental impacts of global warming.

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Corresponding author

*Fax: +64-3-479-7584 E-mail: robert.poulin@stonebow.otago.ac.nz

References

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Climate change, parasitism and the structure of intertidal ecosystems

  • R. Poulin (a1) and K.N. Mouritsen (a2)

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