Carpenters work with wood, artists with paint, but what if the main material in your job was monkey poo? That’s the reality for Dr Suparna Mitra who presented her research on the gut microbiome of zoo animals earlier this week at the Annual Conference. This work could eventually lead to better health and welfare of captive animals.
It’s not just monkeys that are the subject of this fascinating study. Working in collaboration with Banham Zoo, the team, led by Dr Lindsay Hall from the University of East Anglia and Institute of Food Research, have been looking for ‘good’ bacteria in the guts of around 60 species of mammals, birds, reptiles and insects.
“We know that humans get health benefits from having good gut bacteria, but there hasn’t been a comprehensive study to find out if the same could be true for zoo animals,” Suparna explained. “Our work is in the early stages but it looks very likely that the within the zoo community – including monkeys, lemurs and exotic birds – animals do have some of the same good bacteria as humans.”
This work evolved from the group’s work on the problems that premature babies have after receiving life-saving antibiotics, which often damage their gut bacteria. Their studies confirmed that these vulnerable new-borns can have a better outcome if doctors give them probiotics to replace the good bacteria that have been lost. This led Suparna to wonder, “Do other animals need probiotics too?”
Microbiome research is certainly ‘on trend’ at the moment, but there has been criticism that the conclusions drawn have been overstated because the field is new and studies have not yet gone deep enough into the science. Suparna, a statistician with degrees in Mathematics and Bioinformatics, is careful to point out that the zoo animal study is very preliminary.
“For a start, it is difficult to get samples direct from the gut, so we use faecal samples to get a fairly accurate picture of what is going on in the animal’s intestine. With human babies this is really easy because we can just collect some poo from the nappy but you can’t really put a nappy on a monkey! So we need to be careful when analysing our data and controlling for possible environment contaminations,” Suparna cautioned.
Nevertheless, samples were collected from the enclosures of around 100 individual animals representing around 60 different species.
Using genome sequencing techniques to identify the range of bacterial species, Suparna presented preliminary evidence that some of the animals do indeed have Bifidobacteria – a type of bacteria often associated with health in humans, especially infants.
In a controlled case study, it was also shown that the gut microbiomes of two mother alpacas were very similar to their offspring, suggesting that they had passed on their own bacteria. We already know that human mothers pass on gut bacteria to their children via various routes, including the birthing process and breast feeding.
So, there is a possibility that zoo animals might also benefit from probiotic bacteria and may harbour new health-promoting strains of Bifidobacterium. However, more work is needed to confirm which species of animals might be interesting and why there are differences between species.
The variation could be because of differences in their digestive system – in humans, it has been shown that a relatively small change brought about by fitting a gastric band can change the community of bacteria in the gut (work done in Germany, also by Suparna, in a previous role). Equally, the make-up of gut bacteria could be a result of the particular environment the animals live in, the diet they receive and other aspects of their lives.
“We are taking the work step-by-step so as to gradually pick apart the factors that affect the gut microbiome of zoo animals. We’ve got good evidence from this study that there is something interesting going on and we’re excited to do more detailed work with larger numbers of animals,” Suparna concluded.
This research could eventually lead to better health and welfare of captive animals in zoos through introduction of probiotics or prebiotic supplements to their diets.
Nancy is a freelance science writer www.nancywmendoza.co.uk
Suparna would like to thank Banham Zoo for providing the samples, her colleague Jennifer for the collection and preparation of the samples and Dr Hall for giving her the opportunity to work on the project.