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Background: Adaptive shifts in gut microbiome composition are one route by which animals adapt to seasonal changes in food availability and diet. However, outside of dietary shifts, other potential environmental drivers of gut microbial composition have rarely been investigated, particularly in organisms living in their natural environments.
Results: Here, we generated the largest wild nonhuman primate gut microbiome dataset to date to identify the environmental drivers of gut microbial diversity and function in 758 samples collected from wild Ethiopian geladas (Theropithecus gelada). Because geladas live in a cold, high-altitude environment and have a low-quality grass-based diet, they face extreme thermoregulatory and energetic constraints. We tested how proxies of food availability (rainfall) and thermoregulatory stress (temperature) predicted gut microbiome composition of geladas. The gelada gut microbiome composition covaried with rainfall and temperature in a pattern that suggests distinct responses to dietary and thermoregulatory challenges. Microbial changes were driven by differences in the main components of the diet across seasons: in rainier periods, the gut was dominated by cellulolytic/fermentative bacteria that specialized in digesting grass, while during dry periods the gut was dominated by bacteria that break down starches found in underground plant parts. Temperature had a comparatively smaller, but detectable, effect on the gut microbiome. During cold and dry periods, bacterial genes involved in energy, amino acid, and lipid metabolism increased, suggesting a stimulation of fermentation activity in the gut when thermoregulatory and nutritional stress co-occurred, and potentially helping geladas to maintain energy balance during challenging periods.
Conclusion: Together, these results shed light on the extent to which gut microbiota plasticity provides dietary and metabolic flexibility to the host, and might be a key factor to thriving in changing environments. On a longer evolutionary timescale, such metabolic flexibility provided by the gut microbiome may have also allowed members of Theropithecus to adopt a specialized diet, and colonize new high-altitude grassland habitats in East Africa.
Alice Baniel,Amy Lu,Noah Snyder-Mackler
Alice Baniel,Katherine R Amato,Jacinta C Beehner,Thore J Bergman,Arianne Mercer,Rachel F Perlman,Lauren Petrullo,Laurie Reitsema,Sierra Sams,Amy Lu,Noah Snyder-Mackler