Field training at Knowsley Safari and HUGS’s first formal publication on schistosomes

Blog 20 Oct 2022
James LaCourse giving a Health and Safety brief outside of our assigned shed.

In the summer of 2021 the UK HUGS team (Sam Jones, John Archer, Dr Lucas Cunningham and Dr Alex Juhasz) was available for team building and research training exercises. This repertoire included development of best field sampling method for malacological and parasitological inspections for forthcoming use in the HUGS OneHealth workplan in Malawi. At the same time, however, all international travel was restricted, so to accomplish these tasks, our focus of training pivoted to the UK. At that time, outdoor activities were starting to be allowed and freshwater sampling could take place, although our activities were regularly disturbed by the COVID ‘ping’ epidemic.

During July through to August, building upon excellent collaborative links with Knowsley Safari veterinary and management staff, a bespoke programme of training, with allied research activities, was undertaken. Fortuitously this period coincided with LSTM MSc research project supervision, consoling those more disappointed students who would have otherwise travelled to Malawi and assist with HUGS work. It also allowed other more laboratory-based students under the supervision of Dr James LaCourse, to visit and gain some experience of fieldwork whilst viewing the wonderful animals within the Knowsley Safari collection.

Five students in particular, Scott Barlow, Hannah Williams, Emma Chapman, Ellie Spiers and Elly Tinsley, were able to join forces with the HUGS team and gain new experience in field epidemiology. The first skill gained was learning to organise and equip a field laboratory. Although we were assigned the post-mortem room at Knowsley Safari, being too small for our purposes, we were kindly offered use of the outdoor sheds immediately adjacent to it. Improvising along the way, from sweeping floors to organising cultures, the students saw first-hand the importance of teamwork.

Working in these sheds firmly brought to life the process of how assay protocols and schemes of work could be implemented in a ‘resource poor setting’. For example, we successfully established on-site inspection(s) of emergent trematode cercariae from collected aquatic snails, inclusive of spotting these larvae onto FTA cards for later DNA barcoding. Similarly, various coproscopy methods were attempted, inclusive of charcoal culture, for onsite detection and discrimination of parasitic helminths within Knowsley Safari animals. We really did inspect an A-to-Z list of animals ranging from antelopes and zebras.

Experiences gained in field laboratory set-up were a foundation upon those to come during the HUGS pilot exercise in November 2021. Not only did these activities empower our research capacity but they also led a seminal HUGS first publication in the Journal of Helminthology. Its two highlights are worthy of mention here. First, we encountered a very rare avian schistosome Bilharziella polonica, last formally reported in the UK over fifty years ago. Second, we noted two other avian schistosomes never before reported in the UK. Cercariae such as these are implicated in human cercarial dermatitis, albeit a nuisance disease, which is quite common across Europe and becoming of growing concern in the UK.

Two further publications are set to arise from our Knowsley Safari preparative work with research talks already undertaken at the 2022 International Congress of Parasitology, Copenhagen. We are proud to enhance schistosome surveillance in the UK and contribute towards better animal welfare within the Knowsley Safari collection of exotics.