Background: The gelada monkey (Theropithecus gelada), endemic to the Ethiopian highlands, is the only graminivorous primate, i.e., it feeds mainly on grasses and sedges. In spite of known dental, manual, and locomotor adaptations, the intestinal anatomy of geladas is similar to that of other primates. We currently lack a clear understanding of the adaptations in digestive physiology necessary for this species to subsist on a graminoid-based diet, but digestion in other graminivores, such as ruminants, relies heavily on the microbial community residing in the gastrointestinal (GI) system. Furthermore, geladas form complex, multilevel societies, making them a suitable system for investigating links between sociality and the GI microbiota.
Results: Here, we explore the gastrointestinal microbiota of gelada monkeys inhabiting an intact ecosystem and document how factors like multilevel social structure and seasonal changes in diet shape the GI microbiota. We compare the gelada GI microbiota to those of other primate species, reporting a gradient from geladas to herbivorous specialist monkeys to dietary generalist monkeys and lastly humans, the ultimate ecological generalists. We also compare the microbiotas of the gelada GI tract and the sheep rumen, finding that geladas are highly enriched for cellulolytic bacteria associated with ruminant digestion, relative to other primates.
Conclusions: This study represents the first analysis of the gelada GI microbiota, providing insights into the adaptations underlying graminivory in a primate. Our results also highlight the role of social organization in structuring the GI microbiota within a society of wild animals.
Keywords: Cellulolytic bacteria; Ecological specialist; Ethiopian highlands; GI microbiota; Graminivory; Multilevel society; Primates; Rumen.