A Gut's Life

UA researchers learning from lemur families

"Lemurs are pretty weird," said Stacey Tecot, who's spent 17 years studying lemurs.

Tecot is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona, and a co-author of a new research article on the social behavior and microbiology of red-bellied lemurs. The article may also help with human microbiology.

The research article states that, due to lemurs' close proximity to one another, lemur families end up having very similar bacteria to one another. That is to say, the bacteria found in a lemur is affected by which other lemurs it surrounds itself with.

"We were interested in how the gut microbiome is shaped by social behavior," Tecot said. "Because who you interact with may be responsible for the abundance and diversity of beneficial and harmful bacteria that can impact immunity."

The scientists carried out research on 32 lemurs, in eight families, in the Ranomafana National Park in Madagascar. Researchers collected lemur feces off the forest floor and discovered that different lemur families contained unique microbiological make-ups.

So yes, while this does hint at the fact that researchers could identify which family a lemur belongs to just by analyzing the microbes in its droppings, that's not necessarily the biggest discovery of the research.

"It would be a long and difficult process to figure out a lemur's family like that, when you could just as easily look up and see which family it's in," Tecot said. "More importantly, what we've learned is that a lot of biological variation comes from who they socialize with."

"Animals that touch and groom each other all the time tend to spread microbes, potentially both good and bad, but eventually, frequent social contact leads to synchronized microbiomes," said Aura Raulo, a graduate student at University of Oxford, in a press release. "Because microbes tune immune defense, this can be seen as a form of cooperative immunity: Sharing microbial allies and enemies makes infections by opportunist pathogens less likely."

However, this can also be a negative, as the more microbes an animal is put into contact with, the more likely that animal is to contact dangerous microbes. It's a paradoxical situation: Increase your contact with others to boost your immune system, but at the same time, expose yourself to more potentially dangerous diseases.

This is especially true for lemur families that live in such extreme proximity, with members of individual families often picking through each other's hair and sleeping together in the treetops. This also means they rarely interact with other lemur families.

"This is what we predicted, but it's still surprising." Tecot said. "It's pretty much the same as what happens with humans."

So maybe don't go picking through other people's waste to figure out if they have that perfect microbial booster shot that your immune system is in need of. Just know that lemurs' immune systems are affected and, in a sense, shaped by who they spend their time with. And know that might be the very same situation for yourself.

"However," Tecot said. "It would kind of drive me crazy if someone was always picking through my hair." ■

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