The modern wave of species losses that scientists have dubbed the sixth mass extinction threatens to unravel complex ecosystems, irrevocably alter our biodiversity, and endanger the survival of humanity. From the largest elephants to the smallest fleas, tens of thousands of species are now hurtling toward extinction. Among the most vital of these, believe it or not, are parasites. Although parasites are small and sometimes maligned, they’re incredibly important. A healthy parasite community is an indication of a healthy, balanced ecosystem, and many species play key roles in keeping their native habitats functioning properly. Some roundworms mediate competition between host species to help maintain higher levels of biodiversity. Certain tapeworms bioaccumulate toxic pollutants, such as heavy metals, and in doing so protect their hosts and wider ecosystems from harmful effects. New pharmaceuticals are even being developed from the saliva of ticks. Clearly parasites have benefits to both humanity and nature, and their loss could have serious consequences. But the first step in halting the global extinction crisis is determining which species are declining, and this can be tricky. The IUCN, which manages the Red List of Threatened Species, has established methodologies to determine a species’ conservation status, but this […]

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