Food webs are networks of feeding interactions among species. Although parasites comprise a large proportion of species diversity, they have generally been underrepresented in food web data and analyses. Previous analyses of the few datasets that contain parasites have indicated that their inclusion alters network structure. However, it is unclear whether those alterations were a result of unique roles that parasites play, or resulted from the changes in diversity and complexity that would happen when any type of species is added to a food web. In this study, we analyzed many aspects of the network structure of seven highly resolved coastal estuary or marine food webs with parasites. In most cases, we found that including parasites in the analysis results in generic changes to food web structure that would be expected with increased diversity and complexity. However, in terms of specific patterns of links in the food web (“motifs”) and the breadth and contiguity of feeding niches, parasites do appear to alter structure in ways that result from unique traits—in particular, their close physical intimacy with their hosts, their complex life cycles, and their small body sizes. Thus, this study disentangles unique from generic effects of parasites on food web organization, providing better understanding of similarities and differences between parasites and free-living species in their roles as consumers and resources.
Dunne JA, Lafferty KD, Dobson AP, Hechinger RF, Kuris AM, et al. (2013) Parasites Affect Food Web Structure Primarily through Increased Diversity and Complexity. PLoS Biol 11(6): e1001579. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.1001579