Sunday, November 5, 2017


Post #15
Donald A. Windsor

Conservation of parasites seems to be an increasing concern in the literature. Good.

My first involvement with this issue started at a Symposium on the Conservation of Biological Resources back in September 1990, at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. The Society for Conservation Biology was formed just five years earlier and many of its founders were present. At dinner they were still conversing about conservation when I interjected a statement of caution. I warned that all day the talk was about conserving hosts; no mention was made of conserving parasites. I then spontaneously uttered, “How about equal rights for parasites?”

Most of the diners frowned and some even muttered “Good riddance”. However, one of the founders smiled and repeated “Equal rights for parasites” and complimented me on the catchy rhyme.

That was a pivotal moment for me and I often pondered it after the meeting. Some parasite species can go extinct when their hosts do, so if the hosts are saved, the parasites will be also. But at that time, antibiotics were being routinely administered to anesthetized wildlife because their paradigm was that wildlife should be healthy.

Viewed from the point of parasites, free-living wildlife are habitat. Forcing wildlife to be healthy is unnatural, a crime against nature. This was not a popular opinion, so getting my views published was difficult.

But, I got a powerful break when Nature, the world’s leading scientific journal, published my terse letter to the editor. Unfortunately, the editor assigned it a cutesy title. Here is an exact retype of that letter.

Nature 1990 November 8; 348(6297): 104.
Heavenly hosts.
SIR – In the attempt to save certain species from extinction, for example the California condor, the black-footed ferret and so on, how much attention is being given to their natural parasites?
When all of the last remaining members of a species are taken into captivity, they may lose their parasites, either by the drastic change in living conditions, by treatment from zoo veterinarians or by generations of captive breeding. When they, or their offspring, are then released back to the wild, will they be able to become reinfected? Some parasites are quite host-specific in the wild and may indeed become extinct when their natural hosts are gone.
“So what?” may be a typical reaction. But, if our goal is to conserve biological diversity, then indeed all species should be considered, not just those with the most outward appeal. Many hosts evolved or, better still, co-evolved with their parasitic burden. Perhaps they deserve each other.
Equal rights for parasites!
Windsor, Donald A.
PO Box 604
Norwich, New York, USA

In spite of the uninformative title, the response was very gratifying; even the media called.

Buoyed up by that feedback, I submitted many manuscripts to various journals, but most were rejected. However, a few did get accepted. In 1995 the editor of Conservation Biology invited me to write a guest editorial.

Windsor, Donald A. Guest Editorial. Equal rights for parasites. Conservation Biology 1995 February; 9(1): 1-2.
That led to another invitation and another publication.

Windsor, Donald A. Endangered interrelationships; the ecological cost of parasites lost. Wild Earth 1995-96 Winter; 5(4): 78-83.
More publications followed.
Windsor, Donald A. Stand up for parasites. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 1997 Jan; 12(1): 32.
Windsor, Donald A. Equal rights for parasites. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 1997 Winter; 40(2): 222-229.
Windsor, Donald A. Equal rights for parasites. BioScience 1998 Apr; 48(4):244.

One reader even sent me a bumper sticker gaudily proclaiming “Equal Rights for Parasites”.

Thursday, November 2, 2017


Posting # 14
Donald A. Windsor

When a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

When a paradigm shifts and no one in the scientific community notices, does it make any difference?

The tree question was asked by philosopher George Berkley in 1710. I ask my my paradigm question now. The vital role of paradigm shifts in science was explained by Thomas S. Kuhn in 1962.

My paradigm about parasites was published in 1998. I was advocating a paradigm shift. The newly formed concept in my paradigm turns ecology upside down and inside out.

Here is a brief backstory. My dissertation research involved parasites, but upon leaving school in 1966 my employment dealt with other subjects. When I retired in 1994, I was curious about what when on in parasitology during the previous 28 years. So I started reading the parasitology literature where I left off. When I finished in 1997 I experienced a shocking realization. Parasite species seem to be more numerous than their host species. Moreover, the important roles that parasites play in ecosystems seemed to be woefully understated and even vastly unrecognized.

Twenty years will soon have elapsed and, while my article has been cited 197 times, ecologistsists have not yet recognized this new paradigm as a shift. Maybe they never will. Regardless of what happens, I am getting too old to ever find out. Here is a brief synopsis.

The ruling paradigm in ecology holds that our biosphere is composed of free-living (non-parasitic) organisms, with parasites merely being pesky nuisances.

My paradigm contends that parasites are ubiquitous, insidious managers of our biosphere. They do not merely freeload off their hosts – parasites regulate their hosts. When competition and predation do not reign in host populations, parasites take over and prevent monocultures. The result is biodiversity. A corollary is even more astounding; some parasites enable their hosts to avoid extinction.

The validity of my paradigm can be tested, just as any other hypothesis can. If another planet, or even an asteroid, has life, but does not have parasites, then it will have few species and have large monocultures. My paradigm contends that parasitism is a property of life on Earth. Discovery of extraterrestrial life will reveal whether parasitism is a universal property of life.

I hope my paradigm becomes the current paradigm before we contaminate other worlds with our organisms and jeopardize this test.

References cited:

Berkley, George. A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. 1710.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. 3rd Edition. 1996. 212 pages.

Windsor, Donald A. Most of the species on Earth are parasites.
International Journal for Parasitology 1998 December; 28(12): 1939-1941.