• ORC collaborator

Mammals and their microbes: Unraveling the gut microbiome of Etosha's herbivores

Elephant dung along a game trail

Working with animal scat may not be the most glamorous way of studying African mammals, but thanks to advancements in molecular technologies we can use scats to uncover a wealth of new information about wildlife that was not possible or practical even a decade ago. One exiting area of scientific discovery facilitated by advances in molecular technologies is research on the gut microbiome. The mammalian gut contains trillions of microorganisms that play very important roles in the everyday lives and health of animals, from aiding nutrient uptake and digestion, to facilitating immune responses, to mediating an organism’s physical wellbeing. Gut microbiomes also can be highly sensitive to changes in the hosts internal and external environment. For example, the gut microbiome can shift in response to changes in host health or physiology and can even respond to changes in food availability, weather, or other environmental stressors. So, by studying the gut microbiome of animals, we can better understand how various environmental stressors interact to influence wildlife health.

It is hard to find privacy on the open plains!

We are excited to have just started a new project that focuses on characterizing the gut microbiomes of ungulates within Etosha National Park. This project is a collaboration between the Etosha Ecological Institute, the Ongava Research Centre, the University of

Georgia, and Northern Michigan University. Our work will focus on the diverse ungulate community that occurs across a gradient of precipitation in Etosha National Park, which is an important environmental stressor within the Etosha landscape.

Scat samples are placed into tubes containing an additive to preserve them until they can be processed in the lab.

More specifically, we aim to investigate differences in microbiome communities among ungulate species that use different foraging strategies (grazers, browsers, and mixed foragers), as well as how environmental stressors like precipitation influence gut microbiome communities.

We just started sampling for this project and already have collected dozens of samples from a many different species, from smaller ungulates like springbok and impala to megaherbivores including elephant and giraffe. Sifting through piles of elephant scat might not be on everyone’s bucket list, but it is hard to beat the scenery!

J. Beasley (UGA) collects scat from a zebra, who looks on to watch the process.

Once we wrap up our field collections in the next few weeks, we will begin the long process of analyzing the samples in the lab. So, stay tuned for updates on what exciting discoveries come out of this work in the coming months!

Author: Jim Beasley, University of Georgia, Savannah River Ecology Lab, USA