Gut microbes could help African Eagles resist bites

Researchers say new cluster of microbes on birds’ stomachs will help them to avoid being eaten by predators or stuck in jam jars

Scientists have identified the secret microbes living on the stomachs of African “snout-faced” bird-eating eagles, a practice that enables them to feast on mangy carcasses of carrion-munching mosquitoes.

The discovery raises hopes that the viral adaptations on the birds’ gut are helping them survive the deadly bites of insects that devastate crops, cattle and honey bees.

The so-called bloodeaters, which feed on cadavers, are the only carnivorous birds that have added a new bacterium called Fungal Vitalis to their gut. The stomach changes signal the specific moment when the insects have weakened enough for feast, allowing the birds to grab the food at the most convenient time.

Scientists have previously discovered that the insect-eating birds carry two viruses called T. michomonas and T. haemoglobulinema. The new viruses had been detected on the birds’ stomachs.

The discovery was made by finding that the animals had added another type of bacteria called a blentonotoxin 3 (BT3) to their gut flora.

Although the organism showed no obvious medical benefits for the birds, the research suggests the changes in gut bacteria may help the birds avoid being stuck in jam jars when they munch on insects.

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The findings have been published in the journal PLOS Biology.

DeMarcus Willis, co-author of the research from the University of Georgia in the US, said the findings offered new clues into how the eagles have adapted to predators and traps, “pretty much what we are all concerned about as they become more and more humanised”.

Willis said: “When we hunted, one thing we learned is that it was all about finding a set of weird bugs or parasites and soaking up their toxins. Then, we were probably more afraid of vampires or people than anything else.”

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