Early sexual dimorphism in the developing gut microbiome of northern elephant seals

Mol Ecol. 2020 Jun;29(11):2109-2122. doi: 10.1111/mec.15385. Epub 2020 Mar 5.


The gut microbiome is an integral part of a species' ecology, but we know little about how host characteristics impact its development in wild populations. Here, we explored the role of such intrinsic factors in shaping the gut microbiome of northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) during a critical developmental window of 6 weeks after weaning, when the pups stay ashore without feeding. We found substantial sex differences in the early-life gut microbiome, even though males and females could not yet be distinguished morphologically. Sex and age both explained around 15% of the variation in gut microbial beta diversity, while microbial communities sampled from the same individual showed high levels of similarity across time, explaining another 40% of the variation. Only a small proportion of the variation in beta diversity was explained by health status, assessed by full blood counts, but clinically healthy individuals had a greater microbial alpha diversity than their clinically abnormal peers. Across the post-weaning period, the northern elephant seal gut microbiome was highly dynamic. We found evidence for several colonization and extinction events as well as a decline in Bacteroides and an increase in Prevotella, a pattern that has previously been associated with the transition from nursing to solid food. Lastly, we show that genetic relatedness was correlated with gut microbiome similarity in males but not females, again reflecting early sex differences. Our study represents a naturally diet-controlled and longitudinal investigation of how intrinsic factors shape the early gut microbiome in a species with extreme sex differences in morphology and life history.

Keywords: gut microbiome; health; life history; pinnipeds; sex-differences; wild mammal.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Gastrointestinal Microbiome*
  • Male
  • Seals, Earless / microbiology*
  • Sex Characteristics*

Associated data

  • Dryad/10.5061/dryad.jdfn2z37n