What is parasite ecology?

Since you’re reading a blog called Parasite Ecology, you probably already know what a “parasite ecologist” studies. If you do, you’re a member of a global minority – congratulations! Your membership ID card will be arriving in the mail any day now.

If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me what “parasite ecologists” study, or came to the blog after Googling “what is parasite ecology?”, I could buy another pumpkin latte today. In some ways, it’s weird that I’m asked this so often, because I don’t go around introducing myself as a parasite ecologist. (I think my job prospects are better if I sell myself more broadly to other scientists, and I think my communication with non-scientists is more effective if I say that I study “infectious diseases in wildlife and sometimes people, like rabies.”) But because I have a Parasite Ecology blog – maybe even The Parasite Ecology Blog? – I suppose I am The Chosen Answerer of This Question. So, here it is:

Parasite ecologists study the ecology of parasites: the interactions between parasites (or pathogens), hosts, and their (abiotic and biotic) environments.

If you’re looking for something more specific, I also made you this word cloud to illustrate the terms that parasite ecologists used the most in 2017 publications.* Like other types of ecologists, parasite ecologists want to understand the distribution and abundance of individual species, as well as the processes that affect species diversity. To do that, we study individuals, populations, and communities. Sometimes we study the effects of parasites on ecosystems and/or the effects of ecosystems on parasites, but ecosystem-level studies aren’t as common in this subfield, as is corroborated by the fact that ecosystems didn’t make it into the word cloud.


So there you have it! But perhaps you’re thinking, “Wait, that sounds like disease ecology. What’s the difference?” The answer is that parasite ecology = disease ecology. But I think that parasite ecology is a better term, because not all infected hosts are diseased.

If you want to complicate matters further, have you seen my old post about the difference between disease ecology and parasitology? 😛

*To make the word cloud, I performed an ISI Web of Knowledge search for all papers published in 2017 that contained the terms parasit* AND ecology. I performed the search on 28 October 2017, and it picked up several papers from November journal issues. I used the titles and abstracts from all 410 papers to create the word cloud. (I didn’t filter the papers at all, so there are probably a few papers in the dataset that aren’t highly relevant.) If you would like to make your own word cloud, you can access the data and the R code on my GitHub.

Disease ecology versus parasitology

Hey, what’s the difference between a disease ecologist and a parasitologist?

Disease ecologists have job opportunities!

KIDDING, KIDDING. But really, it turns out that there are more disease ecologists than parasitologists in US universities, if you exclude vet schools and the like. There also appear to be more job postings for US university positions that target disease ecologists than parasitologists.

So, we return to my original question, but seriously this time: what’s the difference between disease ecology and parasitology? We might say that parasitology tends to focus more on things like the biochemistry, histopathology, morphology, and systematics of parasites, as well as parasite life cycles. In contrast, disease ecology tends to focus more on population to ecosystem-level phenomena involved in host-parasite interactions. But obviously, there’s a lot of overlap between the two disciplines, if they are indeed separate disciplines, because parasitologists often think about classically “ecological” concepts and disease ecologists can’t study parasites without some parasitological knowledge. So I guess it’s more like gradient with parasitology at one end and disease ecology at the other?

Here is a my own handy flow chart for figuring out if you’re a disease ecologist versus a parasitologist. Anyone have a better dichotomous key?