Nobody can deny the beauty of observing blossoming animal friendships in the wild, but what if there was more to it than meets the eye? A new study published in Science Advances has shed some light on what these close friendships are really doing for the health of chimpanzees.
The study looked into the microbiome system – basically the ecosystem of bacteria, fungi and archaea that live on our skin, within our mouths and in our gastrointestinal tract. Like an ecosystem in the wild, your microbiome is at its healthiest when there are a variety of ‘species’ present within it.
“The more diverse people’s microbiomes are, the more resistant they seem to be to opportunistic infections,” said Andrew Moeller, research fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, who co-authored the study.
To begin the study, researchers collected bacterial DNA in droppings of over 40 chimpanzees between 2000 and 2008, from chimps across a range of ages.
Identified within these droppings were thousands of species of bacteria, some of which are commonly found within humans.
The data was then combined with records of the feeding patterns of the chimps, as well as how much time they spent with other animals and alone.
“Chimpanzees tend to spend more time together during the wet season when food is more abundant,” said Duke University research scientist Steffen Foerster, another co-author of the study. “During the dry season they spend more time alone.”
The findings also revealed that throughout the wet season bacterial species were increased by 20-25% within the gut.
What was interesting was that the findings revealed much more than just the difference in the diet of chimpanzees during the changing of the seasons. Their lifestyle choices were also a factor in their flourishing gut microbiome.
Findings suggested that gut bacteria was passed on from chimp to chimp during grooming, mating or any form of physical contact. Even being in the presence of other chimps’ droppings helped the transfer of gut bacteria from animal to animal.
Researchers found an interesting mix of bacteria in the bowels of the chimps that was just as similar between unrelated individuals as it was between mothers and their children. These results were surprising given that most of the gut microbiome is passed on from the mother to her child.
The results are yet to be applied to human studies.
“One of the main reasons that we started studying the microbiomes of chimpanzees was that it allowed us to do studies that have not or cannot be done in humans,” said study co-author Howard Ochman of the University of Texas at Austin. “It’s really an amazing and previously underexploited resource.”
The study will now continue to identify how fluctuations in gut microbiome diversity can impact the health of chimpanzees.