Thursday 30 October 2014

Parasite infections in German soldiers from the Kilianstollen First World War archaeological site.

The science of palaeoparasitology involves the study of parasite remains from palaeontological and archaeological sites. This rarely involves the recovery of whole parasite fossils; the presence of parasites being more commonly determined from eggs, biomarkers or pathological alteration of the remains (i.e. damage caused to the living host of the parasite that is visible in the preserved body). As such identifying specific parasites takes considerable skill, but is considered worthwhile for the insight it gives into the lives of both the parasite and the host.

In a paper published in the journal PLoS One on 15 October 2014, MatthieuLe Bailly of Chrono-Environment at the University of Franche-Comte, Michaël Landolt of Pôle d’Archéologie Interdépartemental Rhénan and Leslie Mauchamp and Benjamin Dufour, also of Chrono-Environment at the University of Franche-Comte, describe the presence of parasites in bodies from the Kilianstollen First World War archaeological site in the Alsace Region of France.

The Killianstollen was a gallery built by German soldiers for use as a refuge during enemy attacks during the winter of 1915/16. It was 125 m long and between 3.5 and 6 m beneath the surface. At about 1.30 pm on 18 March 1918 the southern part of the gallery collapsed following heavy shelling by French artillery, trapping 34 reservist soldiers from the German 94th Infantry Company. Thirteen of these soldiers were able to escape, but the remaining 21 were left for dead, eventually being excavated by archaeologists in 2011.

Le Bailly et al. took sediment samples from the abdomen regions of three bodies, a 20-year-old soldier, a 22-year-old corporal and a 35-year-old sergeant. These were solid samples, which were rehydrated, then crushed and sieved to extract parasite eggs.

The soldiers recovered during the excavations of ‘‘Kilianstollen’’ in Carspach. Michaël Landolt in Le Bailly et al. (2014).

No eggs were recovered from the body of the corporal. The body of the sergeant yielded two eggs of the Human Whipworm, Trichuris trichiura (a parasitic infection, the eggs of which have been recovered from a wide range of archaeological sites), and one egg of an unknown Capillariid (parasitic nematode).

Egg of Trichuris trichiura (53.19 by 27.45 mm) recovered in individual #1019 in Carspach Alsa‘‘Kilianstollen’’. Scale bar is 20 μm. Matthieu Le Bailly in Le Bailly et al. (2014).

The body of the soldier yielded 5 eggs considered to be from the same unknown Capillariid as the one from the sergeant. It also yielded one Tapeworm egg, Taenia sp. (there are three known species of Taenia that  infect humans, all of which could potentially be present at Kilianstollen), and 180 eggs from the Human Roundworm, Ascaris lumbricoides.
 Egg of Ascaris lumbricoides (66.57 by 53.04 mm) recovered in individual # 1018 in Carspach ‘‘Kilianstollen’’.Scale bar is 20 μm. Matthieu Le Bailly in Le Bailly et al. (2014).

A wide range of Capillariid Nematodes infect both human and animal hosts. Le Bailly et al. compared the specimens from Kilianstollen to a wide range of these, but were unable to make a positive identification. However they were most similar to the eggs of Eucoleus gastricus, a species which infects Rats rather than humans. This is quite plausible, as Rats are known to have been a problem at Kilianstollen and most similar First World War sites, with soldiers recording problems with Rat infestations, food being contaminated with Rat faeces and even instances of hungry soldiers eating Rats in both official records and private correspondence. If the eggs do come from Eucoleus gastricusor a similar Rat-infesting species then it cannot be determined that the soldiers were actually suffering from a Nematode infection or whether they had inadvertently consumed eggs from Rat faeces that were actually incapable of causing disease in a Human host.

Egg of Capillariid (65.036 by 28.38 μm) recovered in individual # 1018 in Carspach ‘‘Kilianstollen’’. Scale bar is 20 μm. Matthieu Le Bailly in Le Bailly et al. (2014).

Finally Le Bailly et al. note a considerable difference between the parasite load carried by the non-commissioned ranks and the common soldier at Kilianstollen, with no eggs recovered from the corporal, three belonging to two species from the sergeant and 186 eggs from three species from the common soldier. It is possible that this is simply an artefact of the small sample size, but it is also possible that it is the result of social stratification in the trenches, with non-commissioned ranks having access to better food, hygiene or information than common soldiers.

 Egg of Taenia sp. (34.95 by 32.25 mm) recovered in individual # 1018 in Carspach ‘‘Kilianstollen’’. Scale bar is 20 μm. Matthieu Le Bailly in Le Bailly et al. (2014).

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