This blog post was originally published by the Friends of the Island Fox in April 2020.
By Alexandra L. DeCandia
Over the last few decades, we've realized that organisms are far more complicated than they initially appear. What may look like an individual fox is actually an ecosystem containing trillions of microorganisms on every square inch. Despite their tiny size, microbes influence important host functions, such as development, digestion, stress tolerance, behavior, and even immunity. Therefore learning more about these hidden actors can inform wildlife conservation of at-risk species in the modern molecular era.
Microbes may be particularly important to species that lack genetic diversity, such as Channel Island foxes, especially where disease threatens long-term persistence. On Santa Catalina Island, scientists discovered extremely high rates of ear canal tumors, where roughly half of adult foxes have growths in their ears. Although the exact cause is unknown, researchers linked ear mite infection to tumor growth and development. The most prominent hypothesis states that infection with ear mites leads to inflammation and rampant cell growth in the ear canal, which in turn leads to tumors. Thankfully, treating foxes with the acaricide Ivermectin has already decreased mite burdens and tumor rates in these foxes.
However, there's more to this story. We still don't fully understand how mite infection leads to tumor growth. In particular, my collaborators and I wondered whether microbes play a role in this system. For example, do mites disrupt healthy microbes and cause secondary bacterial infections? And do those infections then contribute to the chronic inflammation that precedes tumor growth?
To address these questions, my collaborators at the Catalina Island Conservancy collected microbe samples by swabbing ear canals (and a few other body sites) of healthy and mite-infected foxes. (This process is similar to cleaning your ears with a cotton swab, except you don't throw away the swab afterwards.) Once a bunch of foxes were swabbed, all samples were sent to New Jersey, where I extracted DNA, collected genetic sequences, and analyzed the data.
The results came back loud and clear: microbes differed between mite-infected and uninfected ear canals. Rather than a rich community of diverse microbes (as seen in healthy ears), mite-infected ear canals had fewer microbial species present. We further found that the balance of microbes (know as "relative abundance") differed between infection groups.
As it turned out, this pattern was almost entirely driven by an overabundance of one bacterial species: Staphylococcus pseudintermedius (Class: Bacilli). Even though this microbe is commonly found on canid species (such as domestic dogs and foxes), it can become an opportunistic pathogen when healthy communities are disrupted. Once it proliferates, it can be incredibly difficult for the immune system or even antibiotics to eradicate, leading to chronic inflammation.
We now hypothesize that mite infection and secondary bacterial infection with Staphylococcus pseudintermedius contribute to chronic inflammation and tumor growth in Santa Catalina Island foxes.
Although further tests are needed to definitively establish causation, these insights into the microbial dynamics of mite infection can help us monitor the population for antibiotic resistant forms of Staphylococcus pseudintermedius that could cause a disease outbreak. They can further help us explore other open questions, such as why Santa Catalina Island foxes are the only subspecies with ear canal tumors, despite ear mites on other islands. As always in science, answers lead to more questions. But at least one thing is clear: there's more to this story (and indeed, to all organisms) than what initially meets the eye.