Nearly half of all animals may have a parasitic lifestyle, yet the number of transitions to parasitism and their potential for species diversification remain unresolved. Based on a comprehensive survey of the animal kingdom, we find that parasitism has independently evolved at least 223 times in just 15 phyla, with the majority of identified independent parasitic groups occurring in the Arthropoda, at or below the level of Family. Metazoan parasitology is dominated by the study of helminthes; however, only 20% of independently derived parasite taxa belong to those groups, with numerous transitions also seen in Mollusca, Rotifera, Annelida and Cnidaria. Parasitism is almost entirely absent from deuterostomes, and although worm-like morphology and host associations are widespread across Animalia, the dual symbiotic and trophic interactions required for parasitism may constrain its evolution from antecedent consumer strategies such as generalist predators and filter feeders. In general, parasitic groups do not differ from their free-living relatives in their potential for speciation. However, the 10 largest parasitic clades contain 90% of described parasitic species, or perhaps 40% of all animal species. Hence, a substantial fraction of animal diversity on the Earth arose following these few transitions to a parasitic trophic strategy.
- Received April 18, 2016.
- Accepted June 24, 2016.
- © 2016 The Author(s)
Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.