Why do we collect parasites? Pickled parasites in the vast collections of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which are now managed by the Smithsonian. (Photo bottom left): Parasitic horsehair (Nematomorpha) (National Museum of Natural History/Anna Phillips)
Why do we collect parasites?
Lexile

Who would keep a collection of parasites?
 
Believe it or not, the United States government has been collecting them. And it's been doing it for a hundred years. The collection recently was acquired by the Smithsonian. It now numbers more than 20 million parasites. We keep parasites because they are a priority for research related to our well-being.

Parasites cause many diseases. Endoparasites can live inside your body. They include flatworms such as tapeworms or flukes, as well as tiny animals of various types. These can cause infections. Even parasites that live on the surface of your body (ectoparasites) may cause infections. They give rides to other organisms. Ticks give rides to Lyme disease bacteria. The bacteria cause as many as 25,000 infections per year in the U.S. alone.
 
Ironically, parasites are also used for medical treatments. Thanks to natural anticoagulants in their spit, leeches can keep blood flowing into reattached body parts that have been severed in accidents.

The importance of parasites goes way beyond their roles in disease. Research on parasites has been led by medical concerns. But parasites are also players to be reckoned with in the ecosystems we depend on. Recent studies along the California coast and elsewhere have revealed that the biomass (weight) of all the parasites in an ecosystem may be higher than the biomass of all the top predators. While parasites tend to be small, there are lots and lots of them around!

By definition, a parasite lives in or on a "host."  That could be a plant, a mammal like a human, or other animals like crabs. Parasites take resources from their hosts without giving back. They usually don't kill their hosts. Like bad house guests, they may affect how their hosts behave. The close linkage they have with hosts makes parasites relevant for how entire ecosystems function and respond to change. Parasites are too prevalent to be ignored.
 
Learn about how scientists use museum collections to study the many associations between parasites and their hosts. Watch the live "Smithsonian Science How" webcast on Thursday, May 19, 2016. It is titled, "Living Together: Parasites and Hosts" (airs at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. EDT on the Q?rius website). Parasitologist Dr. Anna Phillips will discuss and answer questions live from the National Museum of Natural History. Get teaching resources to use with the webcast.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
How can tiny parasites outweigh predators?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (82)
  • samanthas-1-ste
    5/12/2016 - 02:32 p.m.

    The parasites infect the predators by taking resources from them without giving them back. There are so many that the population of the parasites in general outweigh the number of predators.

  • jontet-wes
    5/12/2016 - 02:52 p.m.

    Learn about science they lot science thing like cups.

  • anthonyg1-ver
    5/12/2016 - 06:11 p.m.

    I always though that parasites are evil, but now I learned that parasites like leeches may save lives.

  • tialden-1-bar
    5/12/2016 - 07:30 p.m.

    Tiny parasites outweigh predators because there are much for parasites than most predators and they weigh more than the total of the numbers of predators' weight combined. Smithsonian collects parasites for learning about diseases as stated in the article. Currently Smithsonian has about 20 million parasites collected. I found this article disgusting because parasites are nasty.

  • ben0424-yyca-byo
    5/12/2016 - 07:35 p.m.

    I never knew that the US collected parasites. It seems really strange to do so though. They might help with medication, but having it collected by the government is strange. The government really doesn't need it, so why do they collect it. The passage also doesn't explain why they do, so I think that they should explain. I already knew that there were also good parasites too. I would really like to know more about why they collect the parasites.
    Critical Thinking Question Answer: Tiny parasites can outweigh predators, because there are a whole lot more parasites than predators.

  • tylera-1-bar
    5/12/2016 - 07:36 p.m.

    Tiny parasites can outweigh predators because the parasites are in more abundance. In paragraph 5 they state, " Parasites may be small but there are lots f them around." This means with thousands of more parasites in the ecosystem they can outweigh the top predators. I chose this article because I think it is cool how parasites such as leeches can help your body recover from an injury or illness.

  • caymanm-2-bar
    5/12/2016 - 07:40 p.m.

    Parasites can outweigh predators because their are a ton of them. Parasites are almost everywhere, especially on other living organisms. The article says "By definition, a parasite lives in or on a host." Parasites take resources from their host without giving it back, causing a change in the host. Most parasites are hard to ignore. I thought this article was interesting because I was surprised that they can outweigh the top predators in an ecosystem.

  • william1108-yyca
    5/12/2016 - 07:48 p.m.

    It is sort of dangerous that parasites themselves can cause about 25,000 infections alone. It is very dangerous and also that people should look out. And I never even new about parasties and never knew that they live on other hosts. But they don't kill the hosts they just go on them.

  • colbys-3-bar
    5/12/2016 - 08:08 p.m.

    Tiny parasites outweigh the top predators because there are a lot more parasites than there are predators. Parasites can be as small as 1 one millimeter long but there are millions of them in an ecosystem. I thought this article was interesting because my uncle has had a tapeworm before.

  • zeusr-3-bar
    5/12/2016 - 08:48 p.m.

    Tiny parasites outweigh predators as stated in paragraph 5 I quote "Recent studies along the California coast and elsewhere have revealed that the biomass (weight) of all the parasites in an ecosystem may be higher than the biomass of all the top predators. While parasites tend to be small, there are lots and lots of them around!" I end quote.

    My opinion on this topic is that well I do not like parasites.

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