Mal-U student gets the scoop on horse manure

February 1, 2005 - 4:00pm

It was a smelly job, but someone had to do it. Every Monday morning at 7 a.m. for five months, Sarah Skotarek visited private stables in Nanaimo before classes to collect samples of horse poop – all in the name of scientific research.

Skotarek, a fourth year biology student at Malaspina University-College in Nanaimo, is conducting a pilot study into a pesky parasite infecting local horses. Between August and December 2004, she collected manure samples from 18 horses in Nanaimo and Lantzville. Back in science labs at Malaspina, Skotarek analyzed the manure under a microscope.

She was looking for eggs of round worm parasites known as Strongyle Nematodes. The parasites attach to a horse’s intestine, and rob the animal of essential nutrients. Larvae of the parasite migrate to large veins and muscles, and can cause a serious condition in horses known as colic.

“Colic is the number one killer of horses,” said Skotarek. “Half of the colic cases in horses are due to this particular group of parasites. It’s a real concern to horse owners. Everybody who owns a horse has to de-worm their animals regularly.”

Local veterinarians help horse owners determine a worming schedule, which is typically every three months, but some horses are sensitive to worming medications.

“Parasites are reproductive machines,” said Malaspina biology instructor and parasitologist Dr. Tim Goater, also Skotarek’s research advisor. “In large numbers these nematodes can inflict serious harm in horses. That’s what led to this pilot study.”

The parasites spread quickly – especially between horses sharing a pasture, added Skotarek. Eggs are shed in horse feces, and once the eggs molt, infected larvae climb up blades of grass in a pasture and wait for their next victims.

Goater said similar studies on Strongyle Nematode parasites were completed in Alberta and California about 20 years ago, but nothing has been done on Vancouver Island. After speaking to local veterinarian Dr. Bettina Bobsein of Petroglyph Animal Hospital about the current problem in local horses, Goater and Skotarek decided it would make an ideal research topic.

“Malaspina undergraduates must complete a major independent research project for a course called Biology 491,” Goater explained. “It’s a requirement for graduation and gives students valuable hands-on research experience.

“This topic was perfect for Sara. Nobody else had done this kind of research, and it really needed someone with a passion for horses and with extensive contacts with local stables. Sara has both – she’s been riding horses since she was eight years old.”

After taking a course in parasitology, Skotarek combined her new interest in parasites with her love of horses to examine the disease problems they face. She modified a well developed quantitative research technique widely used in monitoring grazing animals for their parasite infection levels.

Skotarek is now writing a final report on the results of her independent research project, and will present the findings publicly on March 22.

Skotarek graduates from Malaspina in April, and hopes to start graduate school at the University of Lethbridge, where she will continue studying parasites in horses. Ironically, if accepted into the program, she will work with Goater’s brother Cameron, also a parasitologist and biology professor.

“Sara’s been a great student here at Malaspina,” said Goater. “It would be neat if she ends up working with my brother in Lethbridge. We’re trying to keep her in the family.”

Editor’s note: Sara Skotarek and 15 other Malaspina University-College students will publicly present the results of their fourth year independent research projects on March 22 and 24 at Malaspina University-College, Building 355, Room 203. For information, check the biology department website at www.viu.ca/biology/.


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