Variation in Plumage Microbiota Depends on Season and Migration


Migratory birds can be efficient dispersers of pathogens, yet we know little about the effect of migration and season on the microbial community in avian plumage. This is the first study to describe and compare the microbial plumage community of adult and juvenile migratory birds during the annual cycle and compare the plumage community of migrants to that of resident birds at both neotropical and nearctic locations. We used length heterogeneity PCR (16S rRNA) to describe the microbial assemblage sampled from the plumage of 66 birds in two age classes and from 16 soil samples. Resident birds differed significantly in plumage microbial community composition from migrants (R ≥ 0.238, P < 0.01). Nearctic resident birds had higher plumage microbial diversity than nearctic migrants (R = 0.402, P < 0.01). Plumage microbial composition differed significantly between fall premigratory and either breeding (R ≥ 0.161, P < 0.05) or nonbreeding stages (R = 0.267, P < 0.01). Six bacterial operational taxonomic units contributed most to the dissimilarities found in this assay. Soil microbial community composition was significantly different from all samples of plumage microbial communities (R ≥ 0.700, P < 0.01). The plumage microbial community varies in relation to migration strategy and stage of the annual cycle. We suggest that plumage microbial acquisition begins in the first year at natal breeding locations and reaches equilibrium at the neotropical wintering sites. These data lead us to conclude that migration and season play an important role in the dynamics of the microbial community in avian plumage and may reflect patterns of pathogen dispersal by birds.

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This research was supported, in part, by funding from the Loeb fund and a Post-doctoral 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. The Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center approved all protocols used in this study. We also thank L. Butler, 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, useful suggestions in the laboratory analyses, and helpful comments on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Isabelle-A. Bisson.

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Bisson, IA., Marra, P.P., Burtt Jr, E.H. et al. Variation in Plumage Microbiota Depends on Season and Migration. Microb Ecol 58, 212 (2009).

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  • Microbial Community
  • West Nile Virus
  • Microbial Community Composition
  • Resident Bird
  • Neotropical Migrant