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Ecosystem energetic implications of parasite and free-living biomass in three estuaries

January 1, 2008

Parasites can have strong impacts but are thought to contribute little biomass to ecosystems. We quantified the biomass of free-living and parasitic species in three estuaries on the Pacific coast of California and Baja California. Here we show that parasites have substantial biomass in these ecosystems. We found that parasite biomass exceeded that of top predators. The biomass of trematodes was particularly high, being comparable to that of the abundant birds, fishes, burrowing shrimps and polychaetes. Trophically transmitted parasites and parasitic castrators subsumed more biomass than did other parasitic functional groups. The extended phenotype biomass controlled by parasitic castrators sometimes exceeded that of their uninfected hosts. The annual production of free-swimming trematode transmission stages was greater than the combined biomass of all quantified parasites and was also greater than bird biomass. This biomass and productivity of parasites implies a profound role for infectious processes in these estuaries.