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General Information -> Why study nematomorphs?

Why study these strange parasites?

By all measures, Nematomorphs are considered a “minor” animal phylum. This synthetic group includes phyla such as the Nemertea, Rotifera, Acanthocephala, and many others. The definition of a minor phylum is one that is represented by a relatively small number of species. As such, many are often skipped over in teaching and research. In addition, major funding for research into the biology of these animals is rare.

The reasons that our group has chosen to work on this group are numerous. All of us who study nematomorphs are absolutely fascinated by their beauty and complexity. We have realized that not only organisms in specious groups or those affecting humans deserve our attention. To us, “Minor Phylaologists”, the most interesting question is why so many phyla with so few species evolved in such a relatively short amount of time (mostly during the Cambrian), and why most of these groups have not diversified as much as the insects or the nematodes. In order to address these ultimate questions, we need to study many of the proximate mechanisms making these organisms “work”. This includes information about the life cycles, survival strategies, ecology, relatedness, etc.

Why study nematomorphs now?

Global change makes it imperative that this group of parasites is studied now. Human caused climate change, resource exploitation, human expansion and invasive species have all impacted the natural environment on which these parasites depend. Gordiids not only depend on freshwater habitats, but also the habitats found within paratenic and definitive hosts. Thus, gordiids are tightly linked to the aquatic environment and to the environmental features required by their hosts. The disruption of any one of these environments could lead to the extinction or displacement of gordiid species. For example, over the last 20 years, 29 of 51 Madagascan endemic forest beetles have gone extinct as a result of deforestation (Hanski et al., 2007). Models predict that several more of these species will be lost over the next decade. It is unknown how many parasite species have gone extinct with these hosts. In Costa Rica, forest fragmentation and changes in land use practices have led to alterations in insect species assemblages causing significant loss of biological diversity (Perfecto et al., 1997). A less obvious result of this fragmentation is that insects such as beetles have shifted niches (Gormley et al., 2007), away from aquatic environments. Such shifts may result in species important to gordiid life cycles to torque out of alignment making transmission between hosts impossible. Organisms such as gordiids with complicated life cycles capable of being disrupted by ongoing global change are in pressing need of inventory.

Collecting in the Manzano Mountains, New Mexico, USA  Collecting hairworms in the Manzano Mountains, New Mexico, USA.

Copyright 2014 Ben Hanelt, Matt Bolek, and Andreas Schmidt-Rhaesa
Updated: July 2015