Carnivore gut microbes offer insight into wild ecosystem health — ScienceDaily

New study uncovers the microbial ecosystem in the gut of the wild marten (American Tuesday), which live in a relatively pristine natural habitat, differs from the gut microbiome of the wild marten, which lives in areas more heavily affected by human activity. The discovery highlights an emerging tool that will allow researchers and wildlife managers to assess the health of wild ecosystems.

“Specifically, we found that wild marten in relatively undisturbed environments have more carnivorous diets than marten in human-impacted areas,” said Erin McKenney, co-author of a paper on the work and assistant professor of applied ecology at North Carolina State University. Martens are small mammals related to weasels, ferrets and minks.

“In conjunction with our other work on carnivore microbiomes, this finding tells us that microbial ecosystems in carnivore guts can vary greatly, reflecting the carnivore’s environment,” says McKenney. “Among other things, this means we can tell the extent to which humans are influencing an area by assessing the gut microbiomes of carnivores that live in that area – which can be done by testing wild animal faeces.” From a practical perspective, this work reveals a valuable tool for assessing the health of wild ecosystems.

“Our goal here was to determine how, if at all, human disturbance of a landscape affects the gut microbiome of the American marten that lives in that landscape,” said Diana Lafferty, co-author of the paper and assistant professor of biology at Northern Michigan University. “And the answers here were pretty clear.”

For the purpose of the study, the researchers collected gut microbiome data from 21 martens. Sixteen martens were captured during a legal trapping season. The remaining five were captured safely and released at the Huron Mountain Club, which is located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

“The Huron Mountain Club is particularly important to this study because it is relatively pristine—one of the largest, primary forests in the eastern United States,” Lafferty says. “This makes it an excellent match to the 16 martens that have been collected, as they have been collected in regions that are more affected by human activity.”

The researchers found that the gut microbiomes of marten in the virgin forest of the Huron Mountain Club were distinctly different from marten collected in other areas.

“This reflects the fact that a marten in a relatively virgin forest can forage at a higher trophic level, meaning it occupies a higher place in the food web,” says Lafferty. “In other words, a marten in a relatively virgin forest has a more carnivorous diet, while a marten in areas where there are more people is more omnivorous.” Basically, the findings tell us that the disturbed landscape leads to a significantly different diet, which is reflected in their gut microbiomes.

“It’s also worth noting that we were able to trap and release the marten at the Huron Mountain Club during the winter because we designed and built custom box traps to protect them from the elements,” said Chris Keiling, a paper co-author who is worked on the project while at Northern Michigan University. “This is of interest because it makes winter sampling possible for future wildlife studies even under harsh winter conditions.”

“This is the latest chapter in ongoing research that is helping us understand the gut microbiomes of carnivores,” says McKenney. “The gut microbiomes of carnivores are inherently more variable than the gut microbiomes of other animals. This study adds nuance to the emerging picture that all this variability is not just noise. Rather, this variability stems from the food landscape that carnivores have access to—and this, in turn, reflects the health of the ecosystem in which the carnivore lives. And this means that observing the gut microbiome of wild carnivores can offer us real insight into the ecosystems in which these carnivores live.

The work was done with the support of the Huron Mountain Wildlife Foundation.

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Materials provided by North Carolina State University. The original was written by Matt Shipman. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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