Research conducted at Shedd Aquarium with the University of Chicago revealed new details about the microbiome of Pacific white-sided dolphins at the aquarium and how it is influenced by the surrounding environment.
The large-scale study, recently published by the American Society for Microbiology Journals, looked at thousands of biological samples from the dolphins, the habitat and the animal care staff to determine the ways in which factors like air, water, food and probiotics affect the cetaceans’ microbial communities.
Among the findings, researchers found that the diet of the dolphins and the air they breathe play a larger role in impacting their microbial health than factors like water or skin-to-skin contact. The research, alongside efforts in the aquarium’s Microbiome Project, expands our understanding of microbial community structures and host associations, which may have major implications in future animal health and management practices.
“This study came about from an interest in learning more about the microbiome of aquatic environments and animals,” said Cesar Cardona, primary investigator of the study and a UChicago graduate student. “My hope is that this study opens the door to further research that evaluates the microbiome of these animals and environments, with the goal of informing optimal living conditions that ensure the animals remain healthy and thriving.”
Over a period of six weeks, scientists collected biological samples from three sites on the four participating dolphins—the skin, the rectum and the respiratory tract (exhalation from the blowhole referred to as chuff). Specific areas of the environments in which the animals came in contact were also sampled, such as the water, air, food and animal care staff. 2,370 samples were processed in total. For the last half of the study, animal care staff introduced probiotics into the diet of the dolphins to measure the potential influence to the dolphins’ microbial communities.