Scientists discover vulture bee’s secret diet

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption In the 19th century, British scientists, spotting the presence of bacteria in a fly that ate a sett with flies, speculated that the bacterium may have come from the cow or horse that ate the sett

Scientists have discovered what they believe is a special gut bacteria known to be important for vulture bees.

Researchers say in the fungus-eaters, the bacteria moves into the body as soon as they enter their digestive system.

They show how the bacteria, too, have evolved from bacteria to have distinct dietary characteristics.

The study is published in Biology Letters.

To discover the effective design of the gut bacteria, the team first analysed colonies of two species of the vulture bee (Nuphorax flexiculatus) and one common European vulture bee (Nuphorax lavacus).

Image copyright Reuters Image caption Many vulture bees have two different gut bacteria

Their gut bacteria were then compared with various gut bacteria in other animals.

Researchers discovered that the vulture bees have significantly different bacteria.

“It may be that vulture bees get a different microbiome because of what they eat,” explained lead author Dr Andrea D’Asti, from the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research in Leipzig, Germany.

“The gut bacteria may be more likely to survive their long lifetime or because of the particular way they grow in vulture bees’ gut.”

They also found that the vulture bees in the study had markedly different bacteria to other bees.

“A special group of bacterial community known as gut microbiota may be important for vulture bees’ evolutionary fitness,” Dr D’Asti said.

The study builds on work carried out in the 19th century by English scientists, spotting the presence of bacteria in a fly that ate a sett with flies.

Some of those scientists theorised that the bacterium might have come from the cow or horse that ate the sett.

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Scientists have been studying the microbial communities of animals and plants

For the new study, the team used sophisticated microscopy to observe how the gut bacteria worked.

While they were still doing this, it was revealed the cells migrated into the digestive system of the vulture bees shortly after they entered it.

Dr David A Wynters, from Bristol University and the University of Leiden, said: “This is fascinating and unexpected.”

“The birds presumably get their gut bacteria from whatever brawny edible animal it’s feeding on at the time, and that’s no doubt the case here, but here they are evidently getting the microbes from the bacteria on the ground.”

However, the study didn’t discover the precise role of each species of bacteria in a vulture bee’s gut.

“To provide a definitive role for each bacterium or another additional kind of bacteria we’ll need to investigate more in detail,” Dr Wynters said.

These bacteria may also be valuable to vulture bees as they process the waste products from some plants, where methane – the best form of fuel – is produced.

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