Comparison of skin microbiomes across 16 marine mammal species

An emerging theme in animal and human health-related research is that associated microbial communities or ‘microbiomes’ play vital and active roles in maintaining normal functioning and health. Yet, very little attention has been paid towards understanding the microbiomes of marine mammals. The skin microbiome of humpback whales was recently shown to contain a core community of two main bacterial genera that are maintained across populations and ocean environments. It is possible that these skin-associated microbes form specific relationships with marine mammal species that are essential or reflective of health. However, analyses of the skin microbiome of additional marine mammal species are necessary to determine this degree of specificity. In this study, skin samples from 16 species from Hawai’i and coastal Massachusetts (155 individuals) were analyzed for associated bacteria and archaea using high-throughput sequencing of the hypervariable IV region of the SSU rRNA gene and a highly sensitive bioinformatics approach for differentiating microbial taxonomic units. Species assessed included toothed whales and dolphins (short-beaked common dolphin, Atlantic white-sided dolphin, rough-toothed dolphin, common bottlenose dolphin, pantropical spotted dolphin, spinner dolphin, striped dolphin, short-finned pilot whale, melon headed whale, sperm whale, harbor porpoise), baleen whales (minke whale, fin whale, sei whale) and seals (harbor seal, grey seal). With these data, we will present the diversity and composition of the skin microbiomes of diverse species of marine mammals with variable diets and life histories. Specifically, these data will be used to develop insights into which microbes are: widespread among marine mammals, specific to a certain species, individual or life history, and/or related to individual-specific traits. This research will provide new insight into key skin-associated microbial taxa that may provide a functional or health-related benefit to species or groups of marine mammals, and ultimately has the potential to advance our understanding of marine mammal health and conservation.


Apprill, Amy, C. A. Miller, R. W. Baird, J. Robbins, M. E. Niemeyer, G. T. Waring, A. Bogomolni, S. Landry. 2015. Comparison of skin microbiomes across 16 marine mammal species. Abstract (Proceedings) 21st Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals, San Francisco, California, December 14-18, 2015.