Digital Object Identifier / DOI


Natural Sciences and Mathematics

Document Type



Frontiers in Microbiology

Publication Date






First Page



Multicellular hosts maintain complex associations with microbial communities. While microbial communities often serve important functional roles for their hosts, our understanding of the local and regional processes that structure these communities remains limited. Metacommunity analyses provide a promising tool for investigating mechanisms shaping microbiome heterogeneity, which is essential for predicting functional variation between hosts. Using a metacommunity framework, we examined heterogeneity in the skin microbiome of the eastern hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis alleganiensis). Hellbenders are broadly distributed throughout river systems in the eastern United States, but are present in specific environmental locations throughout their range. The large range of the species and history of population fragmentation suggest that local and regional processes contribute to the distribution of cutaneous symbiont diversity. Therefore, we characterized the skin and environmental bacterial communities at eight rivers throughout the range of the species. We observed variation among hellbender populations in skin microbial community diversity and proportion of shared operational taxonomic units (OTUs) between animal and river water communities. Among populations sampled, we noted significant clumped OTU turnover (i.e., Clementsian structure) resulting in unique cutaneous communities. In addition, we observed a significant positive correlation between skin community divergence and hellbender population genetic divergence. Host-population skin community dissimilarity did not correlate strongly with distance between sampling locations, indicating a weak spatial effect on the distribution of symbionts. These results suggest that species sorting mechanisms (i.e., local processes) structure local skin microbial communities in hellbenders. The variation in skin community composition observed among host populations foreshadows a similar pattern in important functional characteristics (e.g., resistance to dysbiosis). Future work should focus on investigating forces shaping microbiome structure in eastern hellbenders, examining functional variation among populations, and evaluating effectiveness of microbiome management recommendations.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.