Scientists Related to Microorganisms
As gut bacteria garner more attention every day, scientists are starting to make forays into uncharted waters: the microbes of marine mammals.
The collection of benign bacteria living within our bodies, our “microbiota, ” helps us digest food, ward off infection, and has even been linked to mood and behavior. Research on microbial communities has branched out from humans to include terrestrial animals, plants and soil bacteria, and even homes and office spaces. Marine mammals are tough to study, though, as they are far-flung and elusive. Sample collection usually involves following dolphins or whales until they defecate, then rushing to scoop the poop before it sinks.
A recent study, published in Nature Communications (February 2016), took a more in-depth approach, directly sampling captive marine mammals to investigate their internal microbial world. The researchers found that dolphins harbor a unique suite of bacteria, unlike that of any other mammal. Moreover, this unique community can be found within dolphins across the world.
“It’s not eating fish or living in the water that is driving this strange microbiota composition, ” says lead author Elisabeth Bik, a microbiologist formerly at Stanford University. “It is something that is very specific for the dolphin and whale lineage.”
In addition to discovering some previously uncharacterized bacteria in dolphin samples, Bik and her colleagues at Stanford found that bacterial communities in dolphins were distinct from those in both the surrounding waters and in sea lions that lived in the same location and ate the same food.
Investigating marine mammal microbes allows scientists to begin filling in gaps in our understanding of marine mammal health and evolution. In land animals, for example, the gut microbes of carnivores are often distinct from those of herbivores. Researchers have also been able to trace how closely animals are related to one another based on similarities in their suites of gut bacteria.