Natural Sciences and Mathematics
Captive environments are maintained in hygienic ways that lack free-flowing microbes found in animals’ natural environments. As a result, captive animals often have depauperate host-associated microbial communities compared to conspecifics in the wild and may have increased disease susceptibility and reduced immune function. Eastern hellbenders (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis) have suffered precipitous population declines over the past few decades. To bolster populations, eastern hellbenders are reared in captivity before being translocated to the wild. However, the absence of natural microbial reservoirs within the captive environment diminishes the diversity of skin-associated bacteria on hellbender skin and may negatively influence their ability to defend against pathogenic species once they are released into the wild. To prepare hellbenders for natural bacteria found in riverine environments, we devised a novel bioaugmentation method to increase the diversity of skin microbial communities within a captive setting. We exposed juvenile hellbenders to increasing amounts of river water over 5 weeks before translocating them to the river. We genetically identified and phylogenetically compared bacteria collected from skin swabs and river water for alpha (community richness) and beta (community composition) diversity estimates. We found that hellbenders exposed to undiluted river water in captivity had higher alpha diversity and distinct differentiation in the community composition on their skin, compared to hellbenders only exposed to well water. We also found strong evidence that hellbender skin microbiota is host-specific rather than environmentally driven and is colonized by rare environmental operational taxonomic units in river water. This technique may increase hellbender translocation success as increasing microbial diversity is often correlated with elevated disease resistance. Future work is necessary to refine our methods, investigate the relationship between microbial diversity and hellbender health and understand how this bioaugmentation technique influences hellbenders’ survival following translocation from captivity into the wild.
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