The gut health of our closest genetic relative, the chimpanzee, will be examined in a study by The University of Western Australia.
PhD student, Natasha Coutts will travel to Rwanda to research how chimpanzees gut microbiomes, that is, all the bacteria in their stomachs, are impacted by habitat degradation.
The microbiomes in the gut play an important role in digestion and aid the production of Vitamins B and K. Gut bacteria can also influence the risk of diseases such as obesity, Crohn’s disease, asthma and even autism.
Ms Coutts said understanding the gut health of chimpanzees could have implications for how we understand it in humans.
“Humans and chimpanzees are so closely related that it’s highly likely the results from this research will be applicable to questions surrounding the human gut microbiome as well,” Ms Coutts said. “Chimpanzees are a really good model to understand processes throughout evolutionary history that don’t necessarily fossilise.”
Currently, the relationship between host habitat quality and gut microbiome composition remains largely unexplored.
Habitat fragmentation has been shown to decrease plant biodiversity and this study will compare how this affects the gut microbiome of two different communities of eastern chimpanzees in Rwanda.
One community being monitored occupies a 1019 square kilometre continuous habitat and the other a much smaller four square kilometre isolated habitat fragment in Nyungwe Forest National Park, Rwanda.
Faecal samples, behavioural and ecological data will be collected from members of each chimpanzee community over 18 months and then compared to determine their gut microbiome composition.
“The gut microbiome is largely dictated by the diet and the social interactions of the host. Habitat fragmentation can therefore impact the quality of the diet and the way in which animals interact, particularly if they are animals that live in social groups,” Ms Coutts said.
“Given the positive relationship between gut microbial diversity and overall health, this research may provide further support for conservation strategies that aim to reduce fragmentation of chimpanzee habitats in an effort to maintain healthy and viable populations of this endangered, iconic primate.”