Determinants of microbiome composition: Insights from free-ranging hybrid zebras (Equus quagga × grevyi)

Joel O. Abraham, Bing Lin, Audrey E. Miller, Lucas P. Henry, Margaret Y. Demmel, Rosemary Warungu, Margaret Mwangi, Patrick M. Lobura, Luisa F. Pallares, Julien F. Ayroles, Robert M. Pringle, Daniel I. Rubenstein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The composition of mammalian gut microbiomes is highly conserved within species, yet the mechanisms by which microbiome composition is transmitted and maintained within lineages of wild animals remain unclear. Mutually compatible hypotheses exist, including that microbiome fidelity results from inherited dietary habits, shared environmental exposure, morphophysiological filtering and/or maternal effects. Interspecific hybrids are a promising system in which to interrogate the determinants of microbiome composition because hybrids can decouple traits and processes that are otherwise co-inherited in their parent species. We used a population of free-living hybrid zebras (Equus quagga × grevyi) in Kenya to evaluate the roles of these four mechanisms in regulating microbiome composition. We analysed faecal DNA for both the trnL-P6 and the 16S rRNA V4 region to characterize the diets and microbiomes of the hybrid zebra and of their parent species, plains zebra (E. quagga) and Grevy's zebra (E. grevyi). We found that both diet and microbiome composition clustered by species, and that hybrid diets and microbiomes were largely nested within those of the maternal species, plains zebra. Hybrid microbiomes were less variable than those of either parent species where they co-occurred. Diet and microbiome composition were strongly correlated, although the strength of this correlation varied between species. These patterns are most consistent with the maternal-effects hypothesis, somewhat consistent with the diet hypothesis, and largely inconsistent with the environmental-sourcing and morphophysiological-filtering hypotheses. Maternal transmittance likely operates in conjunction with inherited feeding habits to conserve microbiome composition within species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere17370
JournalMolecular ecology
Issue number11
StatePublished - Jun 2024

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Genetics
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


  • Grevy's zebra (Equus grevyi)
  • diet
  • environmental DNA (eDNA) metabarcoding
  • hybrid
  • maternal effects
  • microbiome
  • plains zebra (Equus quagga)


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