Intestinal microbes: an axis of functional diversity among large marine consumers

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Microbes are ubiquitous throughout the world’s oceans, yet the manner and extent of their influence on the ecology and evolution of large, mobile fauna remains poorly understood. Here, we establish the intestinal microbiome as a hidden, and potentially important, ‘functional trait’ of tropical herbivorous fishes—a group of large consumers critical to coral reef resilience. Using field observations, we demonstrate that five common Caribbean fish species display marked differences in where they feed and what they feed on. However, in addition to space use and feeding behaviour—two commonly measured functional traits—we find that interspecific trait differences are even more pronounced when considering the herbivore intestinal microbiome. Microbiome composition was highly species specific. Phylogenetic comparison of the dominant microbiome members to all known microbial taxa suggest that microbiomes are comprised of putative environmental generalists, animal-associates and fish specialists (resident symbionts), the latter of which mapped onto host phylogeny. These putative symbionts are most similar to—among all known microbes—those that occupy the intestines of ecologically and evolutionarily related herbivorous fishes in more distant ocean basins. Our findings therefore suggest that the intestinal microbiome may be an important functional trait among these large-bodied consumers.

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Jarrod J Scott
Jarrod J Scott
Postdoctoral Fellow

I am interested in complexity, genomics, & natural history.