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Parasites -- They're what's for dinner: Investigating the role of parasites in aquatic food webs

Author(s): Sarah Orlofske

Northeastern Illinois University

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Use a well-resolved food web database from a freshwater wetland ecosystem in central California to explore how parasites influence community properties and learn how food webs are constructed and analyzed.


Food webs show the interactions among resources and consumers, known as trophic relationships, by representing the links connecting species (Goldwasser and Roughgarden 1993). Ecologists and parasitologists have considered the diverse trophic interactions of parasites in food webs only recently (Sukhdeo and Hernandez 2005, Lafferty et al. 2008, Sukhdeo 2010). This is often attributed to their small size and being hidden from direct observation while within hosts, as well as challenging species level identification (Lafferty et al. 2008, Sukhdeo 2010).

To aid the understanding of how parasites influence food webs across different ecosystems, Preston et al. (2012) conducted a multi-year study of Quick Pond, a freshwater wetland in northern California. Researchers used a combination of approaches for free-living and parasite taxa resulting in a comprehensive food web for all areas of the pond as well as terrestrial organism that interact with the aquatic community (Preston et al. 2012). In this activity, students use the food web database to explore how parasites influence properties of the entire food web as well as individual taxa. This data set includes two primary data sets, one that includes the taxa and life stages of the members of the Quick Pond community (Quick Pond Nodes) and one that includes the information on the trophic interactions (Quick Pond Links). Several other spreadsheets provide extensive metadata important to understanding how the food web was created as well as the background of the taxa included. This allows students to engage in the process of data management and organization in addition to the ecological content. The data presented here are published in Ecological Archives and have also resulted in two related publications that can provide an even more in depth understanding of the ecological concepts and authors’ interpretation of the data (Preston et al. 2013, Preston et al. 2014).

Please cite as:

Sarah A. Orlofske. 2018. Parasites – They’re what’s for dinner: Investigating the role of parasites in aquatic food webs. Teaching Issues and Experiments in Ecology, Vol. 13: Practice #3 [online]. doi:10.25334/Q40H41

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