Newswise — CHAMPAIGN — Researchers brought together vampire bats from distant Panamanian communities for four months in a laboratory environment and monitored how their gut microbes changed over the course of time. The researchers found that bats who interact closely with each other share more than just body heat.
Reported by the journal Biology letters ,, the study found that bats’ gut microbiomes were more alike the more they interacted with each other in social behavior. These behaviors included sharing food through regurgitation, grooming their neighbors and snuggling together to get warmth.
This study is the first to examine social microbiomes and control for environmental factors, such as diet and habitat. All the bats were kept together in one enclosure, and they ate the same food as laboratory-prepared: pig blood and cattle.
“Vampire Bats cluster together for warmth and grooming, so their saliva is already all around them,” stated Gerald Carter , a professor of evolution and ecology at Ohio State University. He conducted the research alongside KarthikYarlagadda ,, a former Ph.D. student studying biological anthropology at U. of I. anthropology professor Ripan Malhi.
” They spend about 5% of their time grooming one another and licking the bodies and fur of other bats,” Carter stated. “They also share food sometimes, but it’s a rare behavior.”
“The ‘social microbiome’ – defined as the collective microbial community of an animal social network – can fundamentally shape the costs and benefits of group living,” the researchers wrote.
Microbes found on the skin and in the digestive tracts can have a beneficial or harmful effect on an individual or the entire community. Yarlagadda, who was the leader of the microbiome research, stated that scientists can learn how these microbes are transmitted within groups to help them devise strategies to reduce dangers and promote the benefits.
“Vampire Bats exhibit some very interesting social behavior and their diet is strictly controlled as they only eat blood. “So vampire bats are a natural model to explore the relationship between their social behaviors and their microbiomes.”
To better understand this dynamic, Yarlagadda compared the patterns of microbiome variation within – and between – the different groups that were housed together.
” “We found that bats who interacted more often with each other socially had microbiomes that were more similar,” he stated. Carter stated that bats who interacted less with each other – even though they were from different populations at first – their microbiomes became less similar after four months . This is important because it helps to understand how social microbiomes change and develop. Also, because vampire bats can transmit rabies to humans and livestock. Carter stated that
“Vampires bats are the main reservoir of bovine rabies. “It’s a problem for agricultural development throughout Latin America and it’s a public health problem.”
Understanding how microbes are transmitted in these animals may help scientists find interventions to reduce the spread of pathogens like rabies, he said.
Malhi is also a professor at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology U. of I. Yarlagadda, an analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Bureau of Fiscal Service.
This research was supported by the National Science Foundation, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and the Animal Behavior Society.