Skin and fur bacterial diversity and community structure on American southwestern bats: effects of habitat, geography and bat traits

PeerJ. 2017 Oct 27;5:e3944. doi: 10.7717/peerj.3944. eCollection 2017.


Microorganisms that reside on and in mammals, such as bats, have the potential to influence their host's health and to provide defenses against invading pathogens. However, we have little understanding of the skin and fur bacterial microbiota on bats, or factors that influence the structure of these communities. The southwestern United States offers excellent sites for the study of external bat bacterial microbiota due to the diversity of bat species, the variety of abiotic and biotic factors that may govern bat bacterial microbiota communities, and the lack of the newly emergent fungal disease in bats, white-nose syndrome (WNS), in the southwest. To test these variables, we used 16S rRNA gene 454 pyrosequencing from swabs of external skin and fur surfaces from 163 bats from 13 species sampled from southeastern New Mexico to northwestern Arizona. Community similarity patterns, random forest models, and generalized linear mixed-effects models show that factors such as location (e.g., cave-caught versus surface-netted) and ecoregion are major contributors to the structure of bacterial communities on bats. Bats caught in caves had a distinct microbial community compared to those that were netted on the surface. Our results provide a first insight into the distribution of skin and fur bat bacteria in the WNS-free environment of New Mexico and Arizona. More importantly, it provides a baseline of bat external microbiota that can be explored for potential natural defenses against pathogens.

Keywords: 16S rRNA; Bat; Bat microbiota; Chiroptera; Microbiome; Skin microbiome; WNS; White-nose syndrome.