Friendly monkeys have friendly microbes
11 November 2022
More sociable monkeys have a higher abundance of certain beneficial gut bacteria, and a lower abundance of potentially disease-causing bacteria, new research has found.
The study involved analysing social network data from a population of non-captive macaques on the island of Cayo Santiago, off Puerto Rico, and combining this with sequencing data to assess their individual gut microbiota.
The researchers found that monkeys that engage in social interactions were more likely to have an abundance of gut microbes that are known to benefit the immune system, and were less likely to have an abundance of potentially harmful bacteria. The analyses controlled for other factors that could affect the microbiome, including age, season, sex and rank within the group’s hierarchy.
The study was conducted by Dr Katerina Johnson at the University of Oxford, in collaboration with Dr Karli Watson from the University of Colorado Boulder, alongside Oxford professors Robin Dunbar and Philip Burnet.
Lead author Katerina commented: “It is particularly striking that we find a strong positive relationship between the abundance of the gut microbe Faecalibacterium and how sociable the animals are. In contrast to many members of the microbiota which remain rather enigmatic, Faecalibacterium is well known for its potent anti-inflammatory properties and is associated with good health.”
The researchers also found that less sociable monkeys had a higher abundance of Streptococcus bacteria, a group that includes harmful bacteria.
The sociability of each monkey was assessed according to how many different individuals they interacted with and how long they spent interacting. Karli explained: “Macaques are highly social animals and grooming is their main way of making and maintaining relationships and so provides a good indicator of social interactions.”
Katerina added: “There is a well-known association between the quantity and quality of social relationships and health, which is mediated in part by the immune system. It is interesting that our findings reflect this at the level of the gut microbiome. Since the gut microbiome regulates the immune response, our microbes may play a role in this link between our social lives and health.”
This relationship between social behaviour and microbial abundances may be the direct result of social transmission of microbes. It could also be an indirect effect as monkeys with fewer friends may be more stressed which then affects the abundance of these microbes. As well as behaviour influencing the microbiome, we also know it is a reciprocal relationship, whereby the microbiome can in turn affect the brain and behaviour. Karli commented “Long-term monitoring of this island population of macaques provides a unique opportunity to study various aspects of the behaviour and physiology of our close relatives.”
Katerina concluded: “Compared to other lifestyle factors such as diet and exercise, we have limited understanding of the mechanisms via which sociality is related to our risk of illness and mortality, and the microbiome adds a new dimension to this relationship.”
Notes to editors
The full paper, ‘Sociability in a non-captive macaque population is associated with beneficial gut bacteria’, can be read in the Frontiers in Microbiology (special collection on Animal Social Behaviour and Gut Microbiome) and will be published here: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmicb.2022.1032495/full
Images credit: Lauren Brent
For further information, please contact:
Dr Katerina Johnson: 07756 933194 (mob), email@example.com
Chris McIntyre in the University of Oxford press office at firstname.lastname@example.org or on +44 (0)1865 270 046
The University of Oxford
Oxford University has been placed number 1 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the seventh year running, and 2 in the QS World Rankings 2022. At the heart of this success is our ground-breaking research and innovation.
Oxford is world-famous for research excellence and home to some of the most talented people from across the globe. Our work helps the lives of millions, solving real-world problems through a huge network of partnerships and collaborations. The breadth and interdisciplinary nature of our research sparks imaginative and inventive insights and solutions.
Through its research commercialisation arm, Oxford University Innovation, Oxford is the highest university patent filer in the UK and is ranked first in the UK for university spinouts, having created more than 200 new companies since 1988. Over a third of these companies have been created in the past three years. The university is a catalyst for prosperity in Oxfordshire and the United Kingdom, contributing £15.7 billion to the UK economy in 2018/19, and supports more than 28,000 full time jobs.