"So, naturalists observe, a flea has smaller fleas that on him prey; and these have smaller still to bite ’em; and so proceed ad infinitum."
- Jonathan Swift

April 9, 2014

Bivitellobilharzia nairi

A little over a year ago, I wrote a post about Bivitellobilharzia loxodontae - a species of blood fluke that lives in the African forest elephant. Today I am writing about a study on another species from that genus - Bivitellobilharzia nairi - which parasitises the Indian elephant. However in a newly published study, it turns out the Indian elephant is not the only thick-skinned mammal that harbours this fluke.

Photo of Indian rhino by Krish Dulal
The study we are featuring today took place in southern Nepal at the Chitwan National Park (CNP). Researchers collected fecal samples from both domesticated and wild Indian elephants for examination and as expected, they found B. nairi eggs amongst the samples. But it was when they started looking in the poop of Indian rhinoceros that they found the unexpected. These rhinoceros do not take a dump just anywhere; they are creatures of habit and defecate at specific spots call faecal middens - which is how they mark their territory. When the researchers dug through the contents of those middens, they found blood fluke eggs amidst the rhino dung in half of the fourteen middens they sampled from.

The eggs had the characteristic look of schistosome eggs - an ovoid with a hook at one end (see below). But they were not just any blood fluke eggs, they looked very similar to the eggs of B. nairi - the elephant blood fluke. When the researchers sequenced specific marker section of the fluke eggs' DNA, they found that it matched the known sequences for B. nairi, showing that what is usually thought of as just an elephant parasite can also find a home in the Indian rhinoceros. Furthermore, the B. nairi eggs they recovered from the rhino dung were completely viable, showing that the rhino is a natural and commonly used host for this parasite and that they did not end up there by accident

Image of Bivitellobilharzia nairi egg from here
Evolutionarily speaking, elephants and rhinoceros are fairly far apart on the mammalian tree - the last common ancestor they shared lived about 100 million years ago in the era of non-avian dinosaurs. So what is an elephant schistosome doing in a rhino? Despite their specialised adaptations for living in the circulatory system and evading the immune reactions of their particular hosts, throughout their evolutionary history, schistosome have made a number of leaps across divergent animal taxa. One such jumps had allowed the ancestors of schistosomes to evolve from a sea turtle-infecting parasite into one which live in the blood of warm-blooded animals like birds and mammals. While elephants and rhinoceros have had disparate evolutionary paths for at least a hundred million years, clearly their physiology are similar enough for B. nairi to successfully survive in both. In addition, their shared habitat provided the fluke with plenty of opportunity to encounter and adapt to the rhinoceros.

So there is more than one way for two (or more) different species to end up with the same parasite. You can either share a recent common ancestry, or you can share the same habitat which gives the parasite ample opportunities to cross the evolutionary gulf between different hosts.

Devkota, R., Brant, S.V., Thapa, A. & Loker, E.S. (2014) Sharing schistosomes: the elephant schistosome Bivitellobilharzia nairi also infects the greater one-horned rhinoceros (Rhinoceros unicornis) in Chitwan National Park, Nepal. Journal of Helminthology 88: 32–40


  1. Cool stuff. I wonder if Bivitellobilharzia loxodontae can infect other artiodactyls such as hippos and tapirs (If so, would we find Bivitellobilharzia loxodontae in Asian and South American/Central American tapirs?) . Hippos, at least to me, seem a fitting Schistosome host candidate as they're semiaquatic.

  2. The researchers did raise the possibility that the fluke have other hosts in the area and mentioned looking in the feces of other potential hosts which are found in the same area such as chital deer and buffaloes, but did not find any schistosome eggs in their feces. As far as I know, Bivitellobilharzia loxodontae has not been found in tapirs

    As for hippos - they are actually host to at least two different Schistosoma: Schistosoma hippopotami and S. edwardiense.