In an unusual study, researchers brought vampire bats from distant Panamanian populations together for four months in a laboratory setting and tracked how the bats’ gut microbes changed over time. They found that bats that interacted closely with one another shared much more than body heat.
Reported in the journal Biology Letters, the study revealed that the gut microbiomes of bats became more similar the more often they engaged in social behaviors with one another. Such behaviors included huddling together for warmth, grooming themselves and their neighbors, and – in rare cases – sharing food via regurgitation.
This is the first study of social microbiomes to control for other factors – such as diet and environment – that could contribute to microbiome similarities, the researchers said. The study kept all the bats together in one enclosure and the bats consumed the same, laboratory-prepared food: cattle and pig blood.
“Vampire bats cluster together for warmth, and they groom themselves quite a lot, so their saliva is already all over them,” said Gerald Carter, a professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology at Ohio State University, who conducted the research with Karthik Yarlagadda, a former Ph.D. candidate studying biological anthropology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and U. of I. anthropology professor Ripan Malhi.