A new study has found new insights into the microbial ecosystem in the gut of wild mink, which lives in a relatively pristine natural habitat, very different from the gut microbiota of wild mink, which lives in areas
more heavily affected by human activity.
The findings highlight an emerging tool that will enable researchers and wildlife managers to assess the health
of wild ecosystems.
"Specifically, we found that wild minks in relatively undisturbed environments had more carnivorous diets than mink rats in human-affected areas," said
Erin McKenney, assistant professor of applied ecology at North Carolina State University and co-first author of the study.
The mink is a small mammal that is related
to ferrets, ferrets, and mink.
"Combined with our other studies of the carnivorous microbiome, this finding tells us that the microbial ecosystem in the carnivorous gut can change significantly to reflect the carnivorous environment
," McKennie said.
"Among other things, this means that we can judge how much humans are affecting the area by assessing the gut microbiota of the predators living in the area, which can be achieved
by testing the feces of wild animals.
" In fact, this work provides a valuable tool
for assessing the health of wild ecosystems.
"Our goal was to determine how human disturbance of the landscape affects the gut microbiota of the American mink that lives in that landscape," said
Diana Rafferty, co-first author of the paper and an assistant professor of biology at Northern Michigan University.
"The answer here is very clear
For the study, the researchers collected gut microbiome data
from 21 minks.
were caught during a legal rat-hunting season.
The remaining 5 were safely trapped at the Mount Huron Club, which is located on the Upper Peninsula
"Mount Huron Club is particularly important for this study because it is relatively pristine and one of the largest primeval forests in the eastern United States," Rafferty said
"This makes it very similar to the 16 minks collected because they were collected in areas more affected by human activity
The researchers found that the gut microbiota of mink in the Mount Huron Club primeval forest was markedly different
from that of mink harvested elsewhere.
"This reflects the fact that in relatively pristine forests, minks are able to forage at higher trophic levels, which means they occupy a higher position
in the food web," Rafferty said.
In other words, minks in relatively pristine forests are more meat-eating, while minks in more populated areas are more omnivorous
Basically, the findings tell us that disturbed landscapes lead to significantly different diets, which is reflected in
their gut microbiota.
"Remarkably, we were able to catch and release the mink during the harsh winter at Mount Huron Club because we designed and made custom box traps to protect them from harsh environments," said
Chris Kelling, co-author of the paper.
He worked on the project
while at North Michigan University.
"It's interesting because it makes winter sampling a possibility for future wildlife research, even in harsh winter conditions
"This is the latest chapter in ongoing research to help us understand the gut microbiota
of carnivores," McKennie said.
"The gut flora of carnivores is inherently more variable
than the gut flora of other animals.
This study provides a nuance to the emerging picture that all these changes are not just noise
Rather, this diversity stems from the nutrient landscapes that carnivores have access to, which in turn reflects the health
of the ecosystems that carnivores inhabit.
This means that monitoring the gut microbiota of wild carnivores can give us a real understanding of the ecosystems
in which these carnivores live.
The paper, titled "The gut microbiota of wild minks in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan," will be published Nov.
3 in the open-access journal PLoS Smith.
The paper was co-authored by Sierra Gillman of the University of Washington; Miles Walimaa of Northern Michigan University; Massey Kelling of Virginia Tech; and Brian Roel
of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
This work was supported
by the Mount Huron Wildlife Foundation.