Co-extinction in a host-parasite network: Identifying key hosts for network stability

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Parasites comprise a substantial portion of total biodiversity. Ultimately, this means that host extinction could result in many secondary extinctions of obligate parasites and potentially alter host-parasite network structure. Here, we examined a highly resolved fish-parasite network to determine key hosts responsible for maintaining parasite diversity and network structure (quantified here as nestedness and modularity). We evaluated four possible host extinction orders and compared the resulting co-extinction dynamics to random extinction simulations; including host removal based on estimated extinction risk, parasite species richness and host level contributions to nestedness and modularity. We found that all extinction orders, except the one based on realistic extinction risk, resulted in faster declines in parasite diversity and network structure relative to random biodiversity loss. Further, we determined species-level contributions to network structure were best predicted by parasite species richness and host family. Taken together, we demonstrate that a small proportion of hosts contribute substantially to network structure and that removal of these hosts results in rapid declines in parasite diversity and network structure. As network stability can potentially be inferred through measures of network structure, our findings may provide insight into species traits that confer stability.

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Scientific Reports

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