About This Project
The majestic tiger is an iconic resident of zoos, fascinating people of all cultures. This project will determine what is going on inside tigers. The tens of trillions of microbes found in a gut microbiome influence many aspects of health, and yet are unseen and unknown to us. Using non-invasive sampling methods, we will identify the microbial zoo of the tiger gut, with the ultimate aim of better understanding how to promote a healthy microbiota that will ensure healthy tigers.
Ask the ScientistsJoin The Discussion
What is the context of this research?
Gut microbes play critical roles in host animal health (Sekirov et al., 2010), including impacts on gut health, immune function, nutritional status, behavior, and even mood. The gut microbiota is host-specific, i.e., individuals have specific populations of microbes that are influenced by internal factors (e.g., species, age, health status) and environmental variables (e.g., diet, stress), and changes over time (Sekirov et al., 2010).
Diet modulates gut microbiota, and in turn, the microbial composition can dramatically influence how the animal responds to its diet. Captive tigers don't hunt wild prey, so their dietary intake differs from wild tigers. Therefore, their gut microbiota is likely to also differ, potentially affecting captive tiger health, but the extent of impact is unknown.
What is the significance of this project?
High-fiber diets have been shown to improve gut function and health, as well as satiety and behaviour in carnivores, all of which support improved animal welfare. Given the beneficial role of fiber in many other species, captive tiger diets supplemented with a form of fibre may offer important advantages to tiger behavioural and physiological health. One particularly important mechanism by which fiber is thought to exert its effect on health is via modification of the gut microbiota (Scott et al., 2008). Yet, the microbiota of tigers has not been comprehensively investigated. Moreover, dietary intervention studies examining the influence of dietary fiber in this endangered species are sorely lacking. This project will therefore address these gaps in our understanding.
What are the goals of the project?
This project aims to firstly characterise the tiger's microbiome. Whilst doing so we will also be able to investigate the influence of dietary fiber, when supplemented to a ground meat diet, on the tigers' microbiota. Nine tigers in a US zoo have been recruited into this project. The tigers will be fed their typical meat diet, and then switched to a diet supplemented with fiber. Feces from all animals will be collected during feeding periods with and without fiber, and analyzed for microbiological composition and diversity. As well as being the first controlled study of the captive tiger gut microbiome, our analyses will determine how/if dietary fiber influences the gut microbiota. This will allow us to make predictions about the influence of fiber on tiger health and welfare.
These two laboratory costs will enable us to identify and quantify the microbial species present in the tiger gut. Microbes will be identified (diversity and composition) using samples of captive tiger feces. Microbial DNA will be extracted from feces and used to amplify 16S rRNA genes. Gene sequences will be obtained using a high throughput Illumina Miseq platform that will allow us to identify common and rare members of the tiger gut microbiomes. Sequence data will be analyzed using the mothur bioinformatics pipeline followed by a battery of statistical analyses that will enable comparisons among tigers, and that will reveal impacts of diet. Results will be made available to the public through websites and publications. Other costs associated with the project (e.g. tiger diet, sample collection equipment, researcher time, sample transport) are being funded independently (funds are secured for these costs).
Meet the Team
This project forms part of a larger project investigating the impact of dietary fiber on tiger behavioural and physiological health. Our multi-disciplinary team reflects the holistic approach we are taking to studying tiger health and welfare.
I have been working with captive carnivores (primarily cheetahs) for the past 16 years, and have held positions ranging from zoo keeper, to veterinary nurse, as well as research officer and zoo biology lecturer. I obtained my PhD in Animal Nutritional Science from Massey University in New Zealand, where I investigated the role of secondary plant compounds in the reproductive and hepatic health of cheetahs and domestic cats. Since then I have completed research projects investigating dietary factors associated with gut health parameters in captive cheetahs, diet evaluation and digestibility studies in growing cheetah cubs, browse provision in captive rare ungulates, joint health supplement intervention studies in captive leopards, and development studies of hand-reared cheetahs. I have held supervisory positions on a number of MSc and PhD programs, including studies investigating hindgut fermentation in cheetahs, the use of livestock guarding dogs as a form of non-lethal predator control in South Africa, environmental enrichment in captive carnivores, gut-loading of feeder invertebrates for captive insectivores, and parasitology studies in zoological facilities.
I am currently the Scientific Advisor to Cheetah Outreach Trust (South Africa) and a Visiting Fellow at Nottingham Trent University in the UK, where I contribute to teaching and research responsibilities on the Zoo Biology BSc(Hons) and Endangered Species Recovery and Conservation MSc degrees. I am a fellow of the Higher Education Academy (UK) and serve as a sub-editor for the Journal of Applied Animal Nutrition and a reviewer for 6 other journals.
With a growing portfolio of international collaborators and expanding network of colleagues in the zoo and companion-animal management field, I have consulted on a variety of zoo-based projects and continue to publish peer-reviewed articles as well as book chapters and a book.
Gary M. King
I am a microbial biogeochemist with a wide range of interests in microbes and what they do in natural systems. My research has included numerous terrestrial, freshwater and marine systems, along with various extreme environments. Research focused on what microbes do has been complemented by studies of microbial composition and diversity. My work has also focused on animal and plant systems, and I have even discovered and described two marine invertebrates.
In addition, I have characterized the gut microbiomes of two invertebrates (Saccoglossus bromophenolosus, and the oyster, Crassostrea virginica), and am engaged in a comparative analysis of the gut microbiomes in a variety of felids (cheetahs, tigers, cougars, bobcats, jaguars, and servals). The latter effort involves an undergraduate-focused research and teaching experience.
I am on the faculty of Louisiana State University where I serve as a grad and undergrad lecturer and research advisor. I have published extensively (> 150 pubs, H = 56, Google Scholar) and am a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology.
Ellen S. Dierenfeld
Trained as a Comparative Animal Nutritionist, I have worked with a variety of zoo, wildlife, pet and livestock species for more than 3 decades. I developed and led the Wildlife Nutrition Centers at the Wildlife Conservation Society (based at the Bronx Zoo) as well as St. Louis Zoo, directed Africa R&D collaborations for Novus International (a feed ingredients manufacturer), and have conducted field research on 6 continents with a variety of species. I currently work as an independent consultant for diet evaluation, product development, and research with a number of zoos, private individuals, NGOs and commercial feed manufacturers.
I've published >150 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on various nutrition topics, co-authored a textbook on comparative nutrition and metabolism, & mentored numerous students and interns - many of whom currently hold prominent roles in zoo/wildlife nutrition, animal health care, and conservation. In addition to the current project, I currently serve on PhD committees for other students in Europe, South America, and Asia, and look forward to integrating Nutrition, Behavior, and Microbiology in this multidisciplinary project.
I am a veterinarian and physiologist, currently working in the UK as a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Zoo and Wildlife Medicine at the University of Nottingham, School of Veterinary Medicine and Science. I have worked with and studied the health and welfare of wildlife for the past 20 years in Europe, North America, and Southeast Asia. I have experience with the development of novel technologies for surveillance and diagnosis of zoonoses and emerging infectious diseases in wildlife, and the use of a One Health approach linking ecosystem, human and animal health.
I currently serve as Chair of the European Wildlife Disease Association, and am a member of the IUCN Wildlife Health Specialist Group. I am also a member of BIAZA’s Elephant Welfare Group (government advisory committee working to assess and improve welfare of UK zoo elephants), and serve on the Ethics Committee of the Zoological Society of London, and on the Health and Welfare Committee of Twycross Zoo.
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