A standardised faecal collection protocol for intestinal helminth egg counts in Asian elephants, Elephas maximus
The quantitative assessment of parasite infection is necessary to measure, manage and reduce infection risk in both wild and captive animal populations. Traditional faecal flotation methods which aim to quantify parasite burden, such as the McMaster egg counting technique, are widely used in veterinary medicine, agricultural management and wildlife parasitology. Although many modifications to the McMaster method exist, few account for systematic variation in parasite egg output which may lead to inaccurate estimations of infection intensity through faecal egg counts (FEC). To adapt the McMaster method for use in sampling Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), we tested a number of possible sources of error regarding faecal sampling, focussing on helminth eggs and using a population of over 120 semi-captive elephants distributed across northern Myanmar. These included time of day of defecation, effects of storage in 10% formalin and 10% formol saline and variation in egg distribution between and within faecal boluses. We found no significant difference in the distribution of helminth eggs within faecal matter or for different defecation times, however, storage in formol saline and formalin significantly decreased egg recovery. This is the first study to analyse several collection and storage aspects of a widely-used traditional parasitology method for helminth parasites of E. maximus using known host individuals. We suggest that for the modified McMaster technique, a minimum of one fresh sample per elephant collected from any freshly produced bolus in the total faecal matter and at any point within a 7.5 h time period (7.30am–2.55 pm) will consistently represent parasite load. This study defines a protocol which may be used to test pre-analytic factors and effectively determine infection load in species which produce large quantities of vegetative faeces, such as non-ruminant megaherbivores.