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Influence of Massive and Long Distance Migration on Parasite Epidemiology: Lessons from the Great Wildebeest Migration


Very little is known about the influence of massive and long distance migration on parasite epidemiology. Migration can simultaneously minimize exposure to common parasites in their habitats and increase exposure to novel pathogens from new environments and habitats encountered during migration, while physiological stress during long distance movement can lead to immune suppression, which makes migrants vulnerable to parasites. In this paper, we investigated the diversity, prevalence, parasite load, co-infection patterns and predilection sites of adult gastrointestinal helminths in 130 migrating wildebeests and tested for their relation with animal age, sex and migration time (which also could indicate different migration routes), and compared them with the non-migratory wildebeest. Surprisingly, only four parasite species were found, Oesophagostomum columbianum, Haemonchus placei, Calicophoron raja and Moniezia expansa, which were lower than in non-migratory wildebeest reported in the literature. These parasites were generalists, infecting livestock, and suggests that wildebeest and livestock, because of their interaction during migration, have a cross-infection risk. There was a negative relation between parasites diversity, prevalence and intensity of infection, and host age, which suggests that wildebeests acquire protective immunity against these parasites as they get older. Prevalence and intensity of infection were higher among wildebeest crossing the Mara Bridge (early migrants) compared to those crossing the Serena (late migrants), which suggests that early migrants (or migrants originating from different areas) have varying infection intensities. The prevalence and intensity of infection were higher in males compared to females and may be due to ecological, behavioural, or physiological differences between males and females. Our findings compared to those of previous studies suggest that migration may provide a mechanism to minimize exposure of hosts to common parasites through migratory escape, but this result awaits examination of helminths epidemiology of non-migratory wildebeests from areas of migrant origins. The potential parasitic cross-infection between wildebeests and livestock is a real risk to be taken into account in the management of wildebeest migration corridors.

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Masai mara national reserve


Gastro-intestinal tract


General linear model


Kenya wildlife service


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The authors wish to thank the Director of Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and all the staff at KWS veterinary department for their assistance in data collection and analysis. We thank the Masai Mara National Reserve management particularly Dr. Asuka Takita and Mr. Brian Heath for their help in locating dead wildebeests along the Mara River and assisting in parasites samples collection. The authors thank Dr. Eberhard Zehle from the Africa Medical Research Foundation (AMREF) for helping in wildebeest post-mortem and collection of parasite samples. The authors also thank KWS for funding the research, and Sophia Masila for editing the manuscript.

Authors’ Contributions

DM, PC, MO, SA, and TI conceived and designed the experiments for the paper. DM, PC, VO, LR, RCS, LR, RCS, SA have been involved in drafting the manuscript or revising it critically for important intellectual content. Manuscript was analyzed, discussed and written by all co-authors. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Domnic Mijele or Samer Angelone-Alasaad.

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The authors declare that there were no competing interests.

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Figure S1. Images showing identification features of the four gastrointestinal parasites of wildebeest. A is a whole worm of M. expansa, B is a scolex of M. expansa after pressing and staining, C is a whole body of C. raja, D is the whole C. raja worm flattened and cleared, E is the genital atrium of C. raja hand sectioned and cleared, F is the head end of O. columbianum with corona radiate, G is the tail of a male O. columbianum showing bursa and spicules, H shows the tail of female O. columbianum with vulva, I shows the tail of a male H. placei, and J shows a cross section of a female H. placei at about ¼ of body length from head end. Figure S2. Predilection sites in the gastrointestinal parasites for the common adult helminths infecting migratory wildebeests. Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 377 kb)

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Mijele, D., Iwaki, T., Chiyo, P.I. et al. Influence of Massive and Long Distance Migration on Parasite Epidemiology: Lessons from the Great Wildebeest Migration. EcoHealth 13, 708–719 (2016).

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  • gastrointestinal helminthes
  • Serengeti-Mara ecosystem
  • Oesophagostomum columbianum
  • Haemonchus placei
  • Calicophoron raja
  • Moniezia expansa
  • co-infection
  • parasite competition
  • parasite predilection sites
  • parasite load