The Tasmanian devil microbiome— implications for conservation and management

18 August 2020

Background: The Tasmanian devil, the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial, is at risk of extinction due to devil facial tumour disease (DFTD), a fatal contagious cancer. The Save the Tasmanian Devil Program has established an insurance population, which currently holds over 600 devils in captive facilities across Australia. Microbes are known to play a crucial role in the health and well-being of humans and other animals, and increasing evidence suggests that changes in the microbiota can influence various aspects of host physiology and development. To improve our understanding of devils and facilitate management and conservation of the species, we characterised the microbiome of wild devils and investigated differences in the composition of microbial community between captive and wild individuals. Results: A total of 1,223,550 bacterial 16S ribosomal RNA (rRNA) sequences were generated via Roche 454 sequencing from 56 samples, including 17 gut, 15 skin, 18 pouch and 6 oral samples. The devil’s gut microbiome was dominated by Firmicutes and showed a high Firmicutes-to-Bacteroidetes ratio, which appears to be a common feature of many carnivorous mammals. Metabolisms of carbohydrates, amino acids, energy, cofactors and vitamins, nucleotides and lipids were predicted as the most prominent metabolic pathways that the devil's gut flora contributed to. The microbiota inside the female’s pouch outside lactation was highly similar to that of the skin, both co-dominated by Firmicutes and Proteobacteria. The oral microbiome had similar proportions of Proteobacteria, Bacteroidetes, Firmicutes and Fusobacteria. Conclusions: Compositional differences were observed in all four types of microbiota between devils from captive and wild populations. Certain captive devils had significantly lower levels of gut bacterial diversity than wild individuals, and the two groups differed in the proportion of gut bacteria accounting for the metabolism of glycan, amino acids and cofactors and vitamins. Further studies are underway to investigate whether alterations in the microbiome of captive devils can have impacts on their ability to adapt and survive following re-introduction to the wild. Keywords: Tasmanian devil, Marsupial, Carnivore, Microbiota, Endangered species, Conservation and management