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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Age-related differences in the cloacal microbiota of a wild bird species

Wouter FD van Dongen1*, Joël White12, Hanja B Brandl1, Yoshan Moodley1, Thomas Merkling2, Sarah Leclaire2, Pierrick Blanchard2, Étienne Danchin2, Scott A Hatch3 and Richard H Wagner1

Author Affiliations

1 Konrad Lorenz Institute of Ethology, Department of Integrative Biology and Evolution, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, Savoyenstrasse 1a, Vienna, 1160, Austria

2 CNRS-UPS-ENFA; Laboratoire Évolution & Diversité Biologique (EDB), UMR 5174, 118 Route de Narbonne, Toulouse, F-31062, France

3 US Geological Survey, Alaska Science Center, 4210 University Drive, Anchorage, AK, 99508, USA

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BMC Ecology 2013, 13:11  doi:10.1186/1472-6785-13-11

Published: 25 March 2013



Gastrointestinal bacteria play a central role in the health of animals. The bacteria that individuals acquire as they age may therefore have profound consequences for their future fitness. However, changes in microbial community structure with host age remain poorly understood. We characterised the cloacal bacteria assemblages of chicks and adults in a natural population of black-legged kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla), using molecular methods.


We show that the kittiwake cloaca hosts a diverse assemblage of bacteria. A greater number of total bacterial OTUs (operational taxonomic units) were identified in chicks than adults, and chicks appeared to host a greater number of OTUs that were only isolated from single individuals. In contrast, the number of bacteria identified per individual was higher in adults than chicks, while older chicks hosted more OTUs than younger chicks. Finally, chicks and adults shared only seven OTUs, resulting in pronounced differences in microbial assemblages. This result is surprising given that adults regurgitate food to chicks and share the same nesting environment.


Our findings suggest that chick gastrointestinal tracts are colonised by many transient species and that bacterial assemblages gradually transition to a more stable adult state. Phenotypic differences between chicks and adults may lead to these strong differences in bacterial communities. These data provide the framework for future studies targeting the causes and consequences of variation in bacterial assemblages in wild birds.

Age-differences; Automated ribosomal intergenic spacer analysis; Bacteria; Black-legged kittiwakes; Cloaca; Gastrointestinal tract