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J Anim Ecol. 2018 Mar;87(2):323-330. doi: 10.1111/1365-2656.12692. Epub 2017 Jun 26.

Gut microbial communities of American pikas (Ochotona princeps): Evidence for phylosymbiosis and adaptations to novel diets.

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Department of Biological Sciences, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN, USA.
Department of Biology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, USA.
Department of Biology, Colorado Mesa University, Grand Junction, CO, USA.
Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, USA.


Gut microbial communities provide many physiological functions to their hosts, especially in herbivorous animals. We still lack an understanding of how these microbial communities are structured across hosts in nature, especially within a given host species. Studies on laboratory mice have demonstrated that host genetics can influence microbial community structure, but that diet can overwhelm these genetic effects. We aimed to test these ideas in a natural system, the American pika (Ochotona princeps). First, pikas are high-elevation specialists with significant population structure across various mountain ranges in the USA, allowing us to investigate whether similarities in microbial communities match host genetic differences. Additionally, pikas are herbivorous, with some populations exhibiting remarkable dietary plasticity and consuming high levels of moss, which is exceptionally high in fibre and low in protein. This allows us to investigate adaptations to an herbivorous diet, as well as to the especially challenging diet of moss. Here, we inventoried the microbial communities of pika caecal pellets from various populations using 16S rRNA sequencing to investigate structuring of microbial communities across various populations with different natural diets. Microbial communities varied significantly across populations, and differences in microbial community structure were congruent with genetic differences in host population structure, a pattern known as "phylosymbiosis." Several microbial members (Ruminococcus, Prevotella, Oxalobacter and Coprococcus) were detected across all samples, and thus likely represent a "core microbiome." These genera are known to perform a number of services for herbivorous hosts such as fibre fermentation and the degradation of plant defensive compounds, and thus are likely important for herbivory in pikas. Moreover, pikas that feed on moss harboured microbial communities highly enriched in Melainabacteria. This uncultivable candidate phylum has been proposed to ferment fibre for herbivores, and thus may contribute to the ability of some pika populations to consume high amounts of moss. These findings demonstrate that both host genetics and diet can influence the microbial communities of the American pika. These animals may be novel sources of fibre-degrading microbes. Last, we discuss the implications of population-specific microbial communities for conservation efforts in this species.


gut microbiota; host-microbe interactions; phylosymbiosis; pika

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