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Tracking life cycles of parasites across a broad taxonomic scale in a marine ecosystem.

Parasitic helminths exhibit remarkable diversity in their life cycles, although few parasite species have their whole life cycles resolved. Owing to the fact that parasite life stages within hosts are often not comparable using morphological data, genetic data provides convincing evidence of transmission pathways between intermediate and definitive hosts. We took this approach to an ecosystem level, genetically matching parasite (acanthocephalan, cestode, nematode and trematode) life stages across a broad taxonomic range of intermediate and definitive hosts (invertebrates, seabirds, elasmobranchs and teleost fish) in Otago's (New Zealand) coastal marine ecosystem. We identified which transmission routes are utilized by the most parasite species and assessed which intermediate hosts are most important in facilitating the transmission of parasites in this ecosystem. Our findings reveal 59 new records of larval parasites infecting their respective intermediate hosts and 289 transmission pathways utilized by 35 helminth species to complete their life cycles. Sprat, triplefin and arrow squid all hosted the highest number of larval parasite species, suggesting they play important roles as intermediate hosts. We then used the new life cycle data to provide a synthetic overview of the life cycles known for various parasite groups in New Zealand. This study highlights how studying parasite life cycles can enhance our understanding of the ecology and evolution of parasites and hosts in natural systems, beyond simply resolving life cycles.

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