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Parasites in the food web: linking amphibian malformations and aquatic eutrophication

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Emerging diseases are an ever-growing affliction of both humans and wildlife. By exploring recent increases in amphibian malformations (e.g. extra or missing limbs), we illustrate the importance of food web theory and community ecology for understanding and controlling emerging infections. Evidence points to a native parasite, Ribeiroia ondatrae, as the primary culprit of these malformations, but reasons for the increase have remained conjectural. We suggest that the increase is a consequence of complex changes to aquatic food webs resulting from anthropogenic disturbance. Our results implicate cultural eutrophication as a driver of elevated parasitic infection: (1) eutrophication causes a predator-mediated shift in snail species composition toward Planorbella spp., (2) Planorbella are the exclusive first intermediate hosts of R. ondatrae and (3) Ribeiroia infection is a strong predictor of amphibian malformation levels. Our study illustrates how the effects of anthropogenic disturbance on epidemic disease can be mediated through direct and indirect changes in food web structure.
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Keywords: Amphibian malformations; Ribeiroia; deformities; emerging disease; eutrophication; food webs; parasites

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Biology, Washington University, Box 1137, St. Louis, MO 63130, USA

Publication date: July 1, 2004

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