Could Fecal Transplants Save Endangered Species?

fecal transplant

Story at-a-glance -

  • Koalas’ gut bacteria may play a primary role in determining which types of eucalyptus they’re able to digest
  • Altering koalas’ gut bacteria, which could occur via different methods, including fecal transplants, may help to expand the animals’ palates, allowing them to consume and digest different foods
  • A recent study suggests that not only is it possible to alter the microbial makeup of a wild species using fecal transplants, but also that it could encourage them to eat a more plentiful or more nutritious variety of food, increasing their survival
  • The use of fecal transplants for conservation efforts is an exciting new field, but the procedure is also available to treat dogs and cats with a wide variety of conditions, including severe gastrointestinal disease, behavioral issues, atopic dermatitis and coprophagia (poop eating)

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

It’s now abundantly clear that an animal is more than just a product of cells, tissues and bone — it’s a product of its microbiome, which includes bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microorganisms. The complex interplay between a creature’s microbiome and its diet is known to significantly influence health, and researchers are even toying with the idea that tinkering with an animal’s microbiome could give it a survival advantage.

This is particularly apparent for endangered and vulnerable species that depend on a very limited diet to survive. Koalas, for instance, eat only eucalyptus leaves, and individuals pick and choose between the different varieties, further limiting their diet. Research presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) in Atlanta, Georgia, revealed koalas’ gut bacteria may play a primary role in determining which types of eucalyptus they’re able to digest.1

The implication, then, is that altering this gut bacteria, which could occur via different methods, including fecal transplants, may help to expand the animals’ palates, allowing them to consume and digest different foods. For koalas, who are, like many other species, facing threats to their habitat that may make finding only one or two eucalyptus varieties challenging, this could mean the difference between life and death.

Gut Bacteria May Determine Koalas’ Diet

The study presented at ASM was conducted by ecologists at Western Sydney University in Australia. After collecting and analyzing feces from 200 koalas, they found that animals that feasted only on manna gum eucalyptus had different bacteria in their guts than those who preferred the less-nutritious messmate variety.

The researchers then conducted a fecal transplant, transferring feces from six messmate-eating koalas into six that ate manna gum. After 18 days, their microbiomes changed, now appearing identical, and some of the formerly manna gum koalas became more willing to chow down on messmate.

The results suggest that not only is it possible to alter the microbial makeup of a wild species, but also that it could encourage them to eat a more plentiful or more nutritious variety of food, increasing their survival. Fecal transplants, then, could even become a useful conservation tool. Beyond altering an individual’s gut microbiome via a fecal transplant, it’s possible that dietary changes could produce a similar result in some species.

Fecal Transplants Could Help Koalas With Chlamydia

Koalas may very well depend on their gut microbes for survival, such that young koalas (joeys) eat pap, or nutrient-dense fecal matter, from their mothers prior to starting on eucalyptus leaves. It’s thought the pap may be instrumental in introducing microbes to the joey’s gut that allows her to digest toxic tannins in the leaves. The problem is that chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease, is known to infect koalas, and it can be transferred to the young via pap.

Wild koalas infected with chlamydia are often treated in wildlife hospitals with antibiotics, but this too poses a threat, as it alters the animals’ gut microbes, potentially in a way that could interfere with their ability to feast on eucalyptus.

Could White Rhinos Gain Improved Survival by Changing Their Diets?

In related research, the journal Nature reported, researchers with the San Diego Zoo in California suggested that southern white rhinos, who do not have great success reproducing in captivity, could improve their fertility by altering their diets.

The revelation came when the scientists compared feces from white rhinos with that from the more fertile one-horned rhino. Both species were eating the same diet, which was rich in soy and alfalfa, plants foods that contain phytoestrogens that could interfere with reproductive hormones.

It’s suspected that different microbes in the two species accounted for the differing fertility rates, as microbes in the one-horned rhino may be better able to break down the phytoestrogens.

Their solution was to switch the white rhinos to a low-estrogen grass pellet diet, which led to successful reproduction within two years in two females who had never successfully become pregnant before. They’re now looking into which bacteria are involved in the change as well as comparing the microbiota of captive rhinos with those in the wild.2

In fact, research published in the journal PeerJ3 found that koalas with a certain type of bacteria in their gut (one related to a bacteria known to degrade tannin) played a role in whether they survived antibiotic treatment. In addition to figuring out ways to keep the beneficial bacteria intact during antibiotic treatment, the researchers suggested that introducing beneficial bacteria (probiotics) and using fecal transplants to support microbial makeup could also make successful treatments for koalas.4

Fecal Transplants May Benefit Your Pets, Too

The use of fecal transplants for conservation efforts is an exciting new field, but be aware that this procedure is also available to treat dogs and cats with a wide variety of conditions, including severe gastrointestinal disease, ulcerative colitis, behavioral issues, atopic dermatitis and coprophagia (poop eating). Although there aren’t many published studies on the use of fecal transplants in pets, there are many anecdotal reports of its success.5

One of my clients, for example, had success using a fecal transplant to save the life of their yellow Labrador retriever, who was very ill with parvovirus. If you’re interested, ask your veterinarian if they perform microbiome restorative therapy or contact an integrative or holistic veterinarian in your area.

It’s very important to use only a “clean” approved donor, so it’s best not to try this at home. However, do keep an eye on this emerging field, as it’s sure to become a major weapon against chronic disease and, possibly, animal extinction, in the very near future.