"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

August 16, 2012

Eimeria echidnae

We have previously featured a number of coccidian parasites on this blog from birds (here and here), alligators, and groundhogs. Today's coccidian parasite lives in a strange ant-eating, egg-laying mammal from Australia - the short-beaked echidna Tachyglossus aculeatus.

photo from Figure 1 of the paper
The parasite we are featuring today is found in the gut of the echidna where it resides alongside another species of Eimeria - E. tachyglossi. Both these coccidians are found exclusively in echidna guts (generally coccidians are highly host-specific), and both are known to cause mild to severe inflammation of the small intestine, and in some cases, associated with fatality in systemic infections where the parasites have spread to the echidna's other organs. However, the exact role they might play in disease is still unclear. The study we are featuring today was conducted to establish the baseline, background level of Eimeria infection found in healthy echidnas.

The researchers of this study collected fecal sample from echidnas from various zoos and wildlife parks, and examined them for oocysts (see accompanying photo) - the infective stage of coccidia that are shed by infected animals. They found that most echidna shed between a few thousand to tens of thousands of oocysts in each gram of feces. While that may sound a like lot, all the echidnas involved in the study were clinically healthy, and the oocyst numbers were comparable to those from wild marsupials. Furthermore, infection intensity did not change over the different seasons, though oocysts (the parasite's infective stage) were more commonly shed by animals that were housed in outdoor enclosures

Additionally, they also found that while wild and short-term captive echidna shed oocyst of both E. echidnae and E. tachyglossi, echidna that have been held in captivity for an extended period of time only shed E. echidnae, indicating that captive conditions are unfavourable for E. tachyglossi transmission . Because coccidian oocysts are commonly found in the soil, presumably the echidnas become infected while feeding on ants; as they poke their snout in the dirt and use their long sticky tongue to lick up ants, they also end up ingesting a lot of soil (see this video of a hungry echidna on the prowl)

Most newborn mammals become infected with coccidia within their first week or month of life. In contrast, juvenile echidnas that have not been weaned were found to be free of coccidia. Given that echidnas become infected with E. echidnae through exposure to oocysts while feeding on ants, and young echidnas do not start feeding on ants until they are weaned at 6 months old, this age-dependent diet shift most likely explains the absence of E. echidnae infection in juvenile echidnas.

Debenham JJ, Johnson R, Vogelnest L, Phalen DN, Whittington R, Slapeta J. (2012) Year-long presence of Eimeria echidnae and absence of Eimeria tachyglossi in captive short-beaked echidnas (Tachyglossus aculeatus). Journal of Parasitology 98:543-549


  1. It's odd that so many coccidians are highly host specific, and yet the ones that affect humans (C. parvum, T. Gondii, I. Belli) all have a large host range, particularly Toxoplasma.

  2. Wonder how much this is because the human-infecting ones are so well studied genetically.