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group of harbor seals in a rehabilitation pool

Rookery Through Rehabilitation: Microbial Community Assembly in Newborn Harbor Seals After Maternal Separation

  • Microbiology


Microbial community assembly remains largely unexplored in marine mammals, despite its potential importance for conservation and management. Here, neonatal microbiota assembly was studied in harbour seals (Phoca vitulina richardii) at a rehabilitation facility soon after maternal separation, through weaning, to the time of release back to their native environment. We found that the gingival and rectal communities of rehabilitated harbour seals were distinct from the microbiotas of formula and pool water, and became increasingly diverse and dissimilar over time, ultimately resembling the gingival and rectal communities of local wild harbour seals. Harbour seal microbiota assembly was compared to that of human infants, revealing the rapid emergence of host specificity and evidence of phylosymbiosis even though these harbour seals had been raised by humans. Early life prophylactic antibiotics were associated with changes in the composition of the harbour seal gingival and rectal communities and surprisingly, with transient increases in alpha diversity, perhaps because of microbiota sharing during close cohabitation with other harbour seals. Antibiotic-associated effects dissipated over time. These results suggest that while early life maternal contact may provide seeding for microbial assembly, co-housing of conspecifics during rehabilitation may help neonatal mammals achieve a healthy host-specific microbiota with features of resilience.

Switzer, A.D., Callahan, B.J., Costello, E.K., Bik, E.M., Fontaine, C., Gulland, F.M. and Relman, D.A., 2023. Rookery through rehabilitation: Microbial community assembly in newborn harbour seals after maternal separation. Environmental Microbiology.


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