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Project (2018-ongoing) Habitat fragmentation and its effect on the eastern chimpanzee gut microbiome

Forest degradation can decrease dietary diversity and alter social dynamics in the inhabiting species. Host diet and social interactions are strongly associated with gut microbiome composition, which in turn contributes to host health and nutrition. However, the relationship between habitat quality and the gut microbiome remains largely unexplored.

This study aims to understand the effect of forest fragmentation on the gut microbiome by comparing two communities of eastern chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii) occupying a 1019km2 continuous habitat and a 4km2 isolated habitat fragment in Nyungwe Forest National Park (NNP), Rwanda.

Eastern chimpanzees are endangered, typically highly frugivorous, and occur at relatively low densities across large home ranges, yet they also display substantial dietary and social plasticity in constrained environments. Thus, chimpanzees provide a good model to explore the mechanisms by which habitat fragmentation may influence host gut microbial communities. Faecal samples and behavioural data will be collected concurrently from known sub-adult and adult members of each community over 18 months. Phenology surveys will be conducted monthly to assess habitat quality.

Host microbial community assemblage will be characterised using high throughput 16S ribosomal RNA sequencing of collected faecal samples. Behavioural data will then be used to determine if social interactions and diet predict host gut microbiome composition.

It is expected that chimpanzees inhabiting the forest fragment will possess less diverse and more homogenous gut microbiomes compared to chimpanzees within the continuous forest. Given the positive relationship between host gut microbial diversity and overall health, this research may provide further support that conservation efforts that reduce fragmentation of chimpanzee habitats may be among the most effective at maintaining healthy and viable populations of this endangered, iconic primate.

Collaborators: Dr. Beth Kaplin, University of Rwanda and Antioch University of New England Dr. Claus Christophersen, Edith Cowan University, Perth


Natasha Coutts, UWA

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