Does solar irradiation drive community assembly of vulture plumage microbiotas?

Background: Stereotyped sunning behaviour in birds has been hypothesized to inhibit keratin-degrading bacteria but there is little evidence that solar irradiation affects community assembly and abundance of plumage microbiota. The monophyletic New World vultures (Cathartiformes) are renowned for scavenging vertebrate carrion, spread-wing sunning at roosts, and thermal soaring. Few avian species experience greater exposure to solar irradiation. We used 16S rRNA sequencing to investigate the plumage microbiota of wild individuals of five sympatric species of vultures in Guyana. Results: The exceptionally diverse plumage microbiotas (631 genera of Bacteria and Archaea) were numerically dominated by bacterial genera resistant to ultraviolet (UV) light, desiccation, and high ambient temperatures, and genera known for forming desiccation-resistant endospores (phylum Firmicutes, order Clostridiales). The extremophile genera Deinococcus (phylum Deinococcus-Thermus) and Hymenobacter (phylum, Bacteroidetes), rare in vertebrate gut microbiotas, accounted for 9.1% of 2.7 million sequences (CSS normalized and log2 transformed). Five bacterial genera known to exhibit strong keratinolytic capacities in vitro (Bacillus, Enterococcus, Pseudomonas, Staphylococcus, and Streptomyces) were less abundant (totaling 4%) in vulture plumage. Conclusions: Bacterial rank-abundance profiles from melanized vulture plumage have no known analog in the integumentary systems of terrestrial vertebrates. The prominence of UV-resistant extremophiles suggests that solar irradiation may play a significant role in the assembly of vulture plumage microbiotas. Our results highlight the need for controlled in vivo experiments to test the effects of UV on microbial communities of avian plumage.