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Highland adaptation of birds on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau via gut microbiota


Highland birds evolve multiple adaptive abilities to cope with the harsh environments; however, how they adapt to the high-altitude habitats via the gut microbiota remains understudied. Here we integrated evidences from comparative analysis of gut microbiota to explore the adaptive mechanism of black-necked crane, a typical highland bird in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Firstly, the gut microbiota diversity and function was compared among seven crane species (one high-altitude species and six low-altitude species), and then among three populations of contrasting altitudes for the black-necked crane. Microbiota community diversity in black-necked crane was significantly lower than its low-altitude relatives, but higher microbiota functional diversity was observed in black-necked crane, suggesting that unique bacteria are developed and acquired due to the selection pressure of high-altitude environments. The functional microbial genes differed significantly between the low- and high-altitude black-necked cranes, indicating that altitude significantly impacted microbial communities’ composition and structure. Adaptive changes in microbiota diversity and function are observed in response to high-altitude environments. These findings provide us a new insight into the adaptation mechanism to the high-altitude environment for birds via the gut microbiota.

Key points

• The diversity and function of gut microbiota differed significantly between the low- and high-altitude crane species.

• Black-necked crane adapts to the high-altitude environment via specific gut microbiota.

• Altitude significantly impacted microbial communities’ composition and structure.

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Data sets further supporting the conclusions of this article are included within the article and its supplemental files. The complete clean reads will submit to the NCBI BioProject database ( under accession number PRJNA826568.

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This research was funded by the Fundamental Research Fund for the Central Non-profit Research of Chinese Academy of Forestry (Grant No. CAFYBB2020ZA004-4) and the Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Non-profit Research Institution of CAF (Grant No. CAFYBB2018QB010). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

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Authors and Affiliations



GL and MHG conceived and designed the research. GL wrote and revised the draft. GL, CL, and YN analyzed the data. YL, CMZ, HGY, SL, XZQ, and PC collected and provided the samples. HXL, WYW, YHW, and HYQ revised the manuscript. All authors read and approved the manuscript.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Gang Liu or Ming-hao Gong.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Liu, G., Li, C., Liu, Y. et al. Highland adaptation of birds on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau via gut microbiota. Appl Microbiol Biotechnol (2022).

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  • High-altitude environment
  • Gut microbiota
  • Highland bird
  • Microbiota diversity
  • Microbiota function
  • Adaptation