|Photo of Trichinella britovi from this paper
We’ve all heard the stories of people lost in the snow building ‘snow caves’ to survive the cold temperatures. Turns out the nematode Trichinella britovi, a small parasitic worm which have larvae that are found in the striated muscles of carnivorous animals, also survives better in ‘snow cave’ type conditions.
Trichinella britovi can be found in a number of different hosts, with many scavenger species acting as carriers or reservoir hosts that themselves do not experience much ill effects from the parasite, but can be a source of infection for other host species. Trichinella britovi larvae are transmitted when the striated muscle (where the larval worm resides) of an infected host is consumed by another animal. This parasite has adapted to surviving in the decaying muscle of hosts via engaging in anaerobic metabolism, so they can survive in tissue that has little oxygen for long periods of time.
A recent study has found that temperature and humidity also play a major role in the chances of survival for T. britovi. If a carcass infested with T. britovi is frozen, they can survive for up to several months in the muscles, which increase their chances of being ingested by another host. Researchers from Italy and Latvia decided to test whether the chance of survival for T. britovi was better if the infested carcass was buried under snow or above the snow.
The researchers conducted their study on two carnivore scavengers, fox and raccoon dog. First, they placed the animal carcasses in a scavenger-proof netted mesh box that was surrounded by snow. They then divided the box into two sections and placed one set of the carcasses on each side. One side was filled almost to the top with snow while the other side was left exposed (see image below).
|A picture depicting the experimental set-up, taken from Fig. 1 of the paper.
Over the course of the study (112 days) the researchers collected muscle samples from all the carcasses and recorded the temperature and humidity for both environments over key periods of time. The muscle from all carcasses were fed to lab mice and researchers then looked at the prevalence of T britovi larvae surviving and reproducing within the mice. Through that, they found that T. britovi survived better if they were buried in the snow!
Researchers found little difference in the reproduction capacity of T. britovi in the mice from the carcasses which are beneath and above the snow in the first two months of the experiment. However, during the last 42 days of the study, mice that were fed muscle from exposed carcasses above the snow (which were subjected to more temperature and humidity variation) showed a 100% reduction in T. britovi infection, meaning the worms they were fed with were not infecting them at all. While mice fed with muscles from carcasses that were buried also had a reduction in larvae reproduction, but at least some were successful in establishing infection in those final weeks up to the end of the experiment.
The researchers found that the difference in temperature and humidity above snow and below snow were enough to provide a better environment for T. britovi over a longer period. They also noted that below the snow, the variation in temperature was 5.5 times lower than above the snow, producing a more stable and warmer environment. This was further confirmed when the researchers found that the extent of rotting in the muscle (which was more in the buried carcasses than the unburied) was not detrimental to T. britovi reproductive capacity.
So, life is better if you’re buried alive, at least if you’re a Trichinella britovi larvae.
Rossi, L., Interisano, M., Deksne, G. & Pozio, E. (2019). The subnivium, a haven for Trichinella larvae in host carcasses. International Journal for Parasitology: Parasites and Wildlife 8: 229-233
This post was written by Anna Clemann