"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 11, 2024

Anoplocephala gorillae

Tapeworms are found in all kinds of vertebrate animals, and while their life cycles and transmission usually rely upon parasitised prey being eaten by predatory final hosts, some tapeworms have evolved ways to infect herbivorous animals as well. Anoplocephala is a genus of tapeworms that parasitise a wide range of herbivorous mammals including elephants, rhinos, hyrax, zebras, and more. The most well-studied species is Anoplocephala perfoliata because it happens to be a parasite of horses, and heavy infection with that tapeworm can cause gastrointestinal diseases. But the species featured in this post are found in a close relative of humans, specifically the Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei), and its name is Anoplocephala gorillae.

Left: Anterior of four Anoplocephala gorillae with their scolices (attachment organ) visible. Right: Proglottids (reproductive segments) of Anoplocephala gorillae collected from faecal samples.
Photos of the parasite from Figure 2 and Figure 4 of the paper

This post is about a study which took place at the Volcanoes National Park (VoNP), in the Rwandan part of the Virunga Massif - a complex of protected areas spanning the borders of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The aim of the study was to examine the epidemiology of tapeworms in mountain gorillas, and to improve the diagnostic tools for detecting such parasites. To do so, researchers examined faecal samples which were collected by park personnel and Gorilla Doctors veterinarians from groups of habituated gorillas in the VoNP. Whenever possible, each of those samples were identified to specific gorilla individuals, allowing veterinarians to keep track of each gorilla's health and parasite status.

Researchers estimated the abundance of tapeworms in the gorillas by counting the number of tapeworm eggs in each gram of faeces. Generally speaking, more eggs means more worms, but egg production varies between individual worms at different times, so multiple samples needed to be taken to ensure a more accurate count. Out of the 1500 samples they examined, about seven percent had egg counts of over a thousand eggs per gram of faeces, though the average was much lower at 384 eggs per gram. While A. gorillae seems to dominate the tapeworm fauna of these gorillas, the faeces of one gorilla, an infant male named Inkingi, also had another tapeworm species in the genus Bertiella. It is relatively easy to distinguish the eggs from those two different tapeworms - Anoplocephala has quadrangular or triangular-shaped eggs with flat sides and thick shells, whereas Bertiella has spherical eggs with thin shells

In addition to those faecal samples, any gorillas that had died were retrieved from the wild and necropsied as a part of the local veterinary surveillance program. For the purpose of this study, five deceased gorillas that were recovered between 2015–2018 were necropsied and examined for tapeworms. In total, 53 A. gorillae tapeworms were collected, and they varied in size from 1.5 to 13 cm long. Most of them were found in the small intestine, but there were also some in the caecum and colon.

So how do the gorillas end up with all those tapeworms in the first place? While the eggs are released into the environment packaged in the gorilla's faeces, they cannot infect the gorillas directly. Like other tapeworms, they have to go through an intermediate host, which as mentioned earlier, is usually a prey animal. But since gorillas are herbivores, how can tapeworms gain entry into their guts? 

Based on what is known for other Anoplocephalidae tapeworms, gorillas become infected by swallowing mites that are parasitised by the tapeworm's larvae. These mites are tiny, barely pinhead-size, thus can be easily swallowed among a mouthful of foliage. While the prevalence of Anoplocephala among mites might be extremely low, like other herbivorous mammals, gorillas go through a lot of plant matter, eating 18-45 kilograms of vegetation a day. So just a few infected mite sprinkled in would be enough to ensure that the gorillas get infected,

While the deceased gorillas that were necropsied in this study had large numbers of tapeworms dwelling in their gut, they were all in good condition, and had died from other sources of trauma rather than disease. So in contrast to A. perfoliata which can cause major pathologies in horses, A. gorillae is content with a more peaceful existence, just living quietly as a part of the gorilla's regular gut symbiont fauna.