EQUAL RIGHTS FOR PARASITES!
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.
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”.