A Molecular Comparison of Plumage and Soil Bacteria Across Biogeographic, Ecological, and Taxonomic Scales


We used molecular methods to determine the microbial community of soil and avian plumage across biogeographic, ecological, and taxonomic scales. A total of 17 soil and 116 feather samples were collected from five avian species across multiple habitat types within one Neotropical and one temperate locality. Hypotheses regarding patterns of microbial composition relative to acquisition and dispersal of plumage bacteria in the ecosystem were tested by comparing microbial communities within and between soil and plumage. Samples from the plumage of American Redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla) were collected across both habitat types and geographic scales for intraspecific comparisons. The microbial diversity in avian plumage was moderately diverse and was dominated by Pseudomonas species. Despite a highly significant individual bird effect on microbial composition of the plumage, we detected significant biogeographic and type of habitat effects. Pseudomonas species were more abundant on the temperate site when all avian species were included in the analysis, and Bacillus subtilis and Xanthomonas groups were more abundant on the Neotropical site for redstarts alone. However, 16S rDNA sequence libraries were not significantly different between Jamaican and Maryland redstarts. Biogeographic and habitat effects were significant and more pronounced for soil samples indicating lower dispersal of soil microbiota. We detected a significant difference between soil and plumage microbial communities suggesting that soil plays a small role in plumage bacterial acquisition. Our results suggest bacterial communities on the plumage of birds are dynamic and may change at different stages in a bird’s annual cycle.

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This research was supported, in part, by funding from the Loeb fund and a Postdoctoral fellowship from the Smithsonian Institution and a National Science Foundation DEB-0089565 grant to P.P. Marra. We thank the Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica for permission to conduct this research at the Font Hill Nature Preserve, and the National Environmental Protection Agency of Jamaica for their cooperation with our research in Jamaica. Thank you to the Patuxent River Park for permission to work in the park in Maryland. All protocols were approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. We would additionally like to thank T. Sherry, C. Studds. S. Sillett, D. Brown, L. Duda, A. Logie, J. O’Neil, M. McCormick, and D. Whigham for their help in the field and useful suggestions in the laboratory analyses.

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Correspondence to Isabelle-Anne Bisson.

Appendix 1

Appendix 1

Table 4 Identification of cloned bacterial sequences and LH-PCR fingerprinting (LH operational taxonomic unit (OTU) length in base pairs) results from representative sequences sampled from the feathers of one American Redstart captured in Jamaica (JA39) and one captured in Maryland (MD34)

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Bisson, IA., Marra, P.P., Burtt, E.H. et al. A Molecular Comparison of Plumage and Soil Bacteria Across Biogeographic, Ecological, and Taxonomic Scales. Microb Ecol 54, 65–81 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00248-006-9173-2

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  • Bacterial Community
  • West Nile Virus
  • Migratory Bird
  • Terminal Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism
  • Bacterial Composition