Social environment and genetics underlie body site-specific microbiomes of Yellowstone National Park gray wolves (Canis lupus)

Alexandra L. DeCandia, Kira A. Cassidy, Daniel R. Stahler, Erin A. Stahler, Bridgett M. vonHoldt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


The host-associated microbiome is an important player in the ecology and evolution of species. Despite growing interest in the medical, veterinary, and conservation communities, there remain numerous questions about the primary factors underlying microbiota, particularly in wildlife. We bridged this knowledge gap by leveraging microbial, genetic, and observational data collected in a wild, pedigreed population of gray wolves (Canis lupus) inhabiting Yellowstone National Park. We characterized body site-specific microbes across six haired and mucosal body sites (and two fecal samples) using 16S rRNA amplicon sequencing. At the phylum level, we found that the microbiome of gray wolves primarily consists of Actinobacteria, Bacteroidetes, Firmicutes, Fusobacteria, and Proteobacteria, consistent with previous studies within Mammalia and Canidae. At the genus level, we documented body site-specific microbiota with functions relevant to microenvironment and local physiological processes. We additionally employed observational and RAD sequencing data to examine genetic, demographic, and environmental correlates of skin and gut microbiota. We surveyed individuals across several levels of pedigree relationships, generations, and social groups, and found that social environment (i.e., pack) and genetic relatedness were two primary factors associated with microbial community composition to differing degrees between body sites. We additionally reported body condition and coat color as secondary factors underlying gut and skin microbiomes, respectively. We concluded that gray wolf microbiota resemble similar host species, differ between body sites, and are shaped by numerous endogenous and exogenous factors. These results provide baseline information for this long-term study population and yield important insights into the evolutionary history, ecology, and conservation of wild wolves and their associated microbes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)9472-9488
Number of pages17
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number14
StatePublished - Jul 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Ecology


  • genetics
  • gray wolf
  • host–microbe interactions
  • mammal
  • microbiome
  • pedigree
  • social behavior
  • wild canid


Dive into the research topics of 'Social environment and genetics underlie body site-specific microbiomes of Yellowstone National Park gray wolves (Canis lupus)'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this