Quantitative Interspecific Approach to the Stylosphere: Patterns of Bacteria and Fungi Abundance on Passerine Bird Feathers


Feathers are the habitat of a myriad of organisms, from fungi and bacteria to lice and mites. Although most studies focus on specific taxa and their interaction with the bird host, anecdotal data glimpse feathers as holders of a system with its own ecology, what we call here the stylosphere. A major gap in our knowledge of the stylosphere is the ecology of the total abundance of microorganisms, being also rare to find studies that analyze abundance of more than one group of microorganisms at the bird interspecific level. Here, we quantified bacterial and fungi abundances through qPCR on the wing feathers of 144 birds from 24 passerine and one non-passerine bird species from three localities in Southern Spain. Bacteria and fungi abundances spanned three orders of magnitude among individual birds, but were consistent when comparing the right and the left wing feathers of individuals. Sampling locality explained ca. 14% of the variation in both bacteria and fungi abundances. Even when statistically controlling for sampling locality, microbial abundances consistently differed between birds from different species, but these differences were not explained by bird phylogeny. Finally, bird individuals and species having more bacteria also tended to held larger abundances of fungi. Our results suggest a quite complex explanation for stylosphere microorganisms’ abundance, being shaped by bird individual and species traits, as well as environmental factors, and likely bacteria–fungi interactions.

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Data Availability

The datasets generated during and/or analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


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Marina Moreno, Walo Moreno, Laura Gangoso, and Santi Guallar for feather mass data. This manuscript benefited from comments of two anonymous referees.


Funding was provided by the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness CGL2015–69,650-P project to RJ and DS, European Commission H2020-MSCA-IF-2019 program (id 886532) to JD, and La Caixa-Severo Ochoa International PhD Program 2016 to ML.

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All authors contributed to the study, commented on previous versions of the manuscript, and read and approved the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to María del Mar Labrador.

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Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethics Approval

The study was conducted in compliance with the current laws of the Spanish Government. Bird ringing was done by RJ under the Spanish Ministry ringing license number 300111. All applicable national guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed.

No endangered species were involved in this study. All birds were studied with mild severity methods and released at sampling locality some minutes after capture. Birds were captured and feathers were collected under a permit granted by Consejería de Agricultura, Pesca y Desarrollo Rural de la Junta de Andalucía, and permit from the Parque Natural Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche. The sampling protocol was approved by the Dirección General de Gestión del Medio Natural de la Consejería de Medio Ambiente y Ordenación del Territorio and the Subcomité de Bioética (CSIC). The study from which feather masses were obtained [29] had permits that were granted by the Spanish regional administration Consejería de Medio Ambiente, Caza y Patrimonio, Cabildo de Lanzarote (permit ES-000687/2015), and Departament de Territori i Sostenibilitat, Generalitat de Catalunya (permit SF/0229/2019).

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Code Availability

The code generated during the current study is available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

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Labrador, M., Doña, J., Serrano, D. et al. Quantitative Interspecific Approach to the Stylosphere: Patterns of Bacteria and Fungi Abundance on Passerine Bird Feathers. Microb Ecol (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00248-020-01634-2

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  • Mantel test
  • Microorganisms
  • Phylogenetic signal
  • Plumage
  • qPCR
  • Repeatability