Because primates are one of the best-studied groups of mammals and harbor a diverse array of parasites, they represent a valuable system for investigating patterns of infection in natural populations and the effects of parasites on hosts. In this chapter, we defined and illustrated key parasite traits that are necessary for understanding interactions between hosts and parasites, including taxonomic identity, transmission mode, host specificity, and virulence. These traits are expected to have substantial impacts on host-parasite dynamics, host behavioral and immune defenses, and population viability.
One surprising result to emerge from recent studies of pathogen characteristics in primates and other mammals is that the overwhelming majority of parasites can infect hosts from multiple genera, families, or orders. Increasingly, the lines between risks to human health and wildlife conservation are blurred by the awareness that emerging pathogens in humans and wildlife are those that can cross species barriers—particularly viruses that can infect humans, wildlife, and domesticated animals (e.g. West Nile Virus, SARS, Ebola, and avian influenza). Understanding factors that drive outbreaks of these multi-host parasites, including how their transmission strategies interact with the environment and host ecology, could benefit conservation efforts and limit the damaging effects of human activities that trigger disease outbreaks (Chapter 7).
Major questions remain about the evolutionary relationships among extant parasites. Although this information is important to understanding parasite diversity, in this chapter we focused on describing major functional groups of parasites and highlighting characteristics expected to influence their spread and impact on animal populations. Many of the groups we described are not monophyletic, and this summary barely scratches the surface of the myriad dimensions of parasite diversity. Interested readers may wish to consult other, more comprehensive sources for information on parasite diversity and biological traits.
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