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Host avian species and environmental conditions influence the microbial ecology of brood parasitic brown-headed cowbird nestlings: What rules the roost?

Molecular Ecology 2024 Februrary 8
The role of species interactions, as well as genetic and environmental factors, all likely contribute to the composition and structure of the gut microbiome; however, disentangling these independent factors under field conditions represents a challenge for a functional understanding of gut microbial ecology. Avian brood parasites provide unique opportunities to investigate these questions, as brood parasitism results in parasite and host nestlings being raised in the same nest, by the same parents. Here we utilized obligate brood parasite brown-headed cowbird nestlings (BHCO; Molothrus ater) raised by several different host passerine species to better understand, via 16S rRNA sequencing, the microbial ecology of brood parasitism. First, we compared faecal microbial communities of prothonotary warbler nestlings (PROW; Protonotaria citrea) that were either parasitized or non-parasitized by BHCO and communities among BHCO nestlings from PROW nests. We found that parasitism by BHCO significantly altered both the community membership and community structure of the PROW nestling microbiota, perhaps due to the stressful nest environment generated by brood parasitism. In a second dataset, we compared faecal microbiotas from BHCO nestlings raised by six different host passerine species. Here, we found that the microbiota of BHCO nestlings was significantly influenced by the parental host species and the presence of an inter-specific nestmate. Thus, early rearing environment is important in determining the microbiota of brood parasite nestlings and their companion nestlings. Future work may aim to understand the functional effects of this microbiota variability on nestling performance and fitness.

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