The transgenerational maintenance of symbiotic microbes that benefit host nutrition and health is evolutionarily advantageous. In some vertebrate lineages, coprophagy is used as a strategy for effectively transmitting microbes across generations. However, this strategy has still not been studied in birds. Accordingly, the aim of the present study was to evaluate the role of maternal cecal feces consumption by Japanese rock ptarmigan (Lagopus muta japonica) chicks as a strategy for acquiring essential gut microbes. Both the duration of coprophagy behavior by the chicks and the development process of the chick cecal microbiome (n=20 one- to three-week-old chicks, from three broods) were investigated. In all three broods, coprophagy behavior was only observed from 3 to 18 days of age. Furthermore, there was no significant difference in the number of bacterial operational taxonomic units (OTUs) in 1-week-old chicks (n=651) and adults (n=609), and most of the main OTUs observed in the adults were already present in the 1-week-old chicks. These results indicate that, in this precocial bird species, coprophagy may contribute to the early establishment of cecal bacteria that are essential for food digestion and, thus, chick survival. In fact, Japanese rock ptarmigan chicks consume the same food as their hens from the time of hatching. This behavior may have applications to ex-situ conservation.
Keywords: coprophagy; gut microbiome development; herbivorous bird; microbiome transmission.