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Am J Primatol. 2012 Jul;74(7):622-31. doi: 10.1002/ajp.22014. Epub 2012 May 2.

A metagenomic study of primate insect diet diversity.

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Department of Anthropology, New York University, New York, NY, USA.


Descriptions of primate diets are generally based on either direct observation of foraging behavior, morphological classification of food remains from feces, or analysis of the stomach contents of deceased individuals. Some diet items (e.g. insect prey), however, are difficult to identify visually, and observation conditions often do not permit adequate quantitative sampling of feeding behavior. Moreover, the taxonomically informative morphology of some food species (e.g. swallowed seeds, insect exoskeletons) may be destroyed by the digestive process. Because of these limitations, we used a metagenomic approach to conduct a preliminary, "proof of concept" study of interspecific variation in the insect component of the diets of six sympatric New World monkeys known, based on observational field studies, to differ markedly in their feeding ecology. We used generalized arthropod polymerase chain reaction (PCR) primers and cloning to sequence mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequences of the arthropod cytochrome b (CYT B) gene from fecal samples of wild woolly, titi, saki, capuchin, squirrel, and spider monkeys collected from a single sampling site in western Amazonia where these genera occur sympatrically. We then assigned preliminary taxonomic identifications to the sequences by basic local alignment search tool (BLAST) comparison to arthropod CYT B sequences present in GenBank. This study is the first to use molecular techniques to identify insect prey in primate diets. The results suggest that a metagenomic approach may prove valuable in augmenting and corroborating observational data and increasing the resolution of primate diet studies, although the lack of comparative reference sequences for many South American insects limits the approach at present. As such reference data become available for more animal and plant taxa, this approach also holds promise for studying additional components of primate diets.

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