Ear mite infection is associated with altered microbial communities in genetically depauperate Santa Catalina Island foxes (Urocyon littoralis catalinae).
The host-associated microbiome is increasingly recognized as a critical player in health and immunity. Recent studies have shown that disruption of commensal microbial communities can contribute to disease pathogenesis and severity. Santa Catalina Island foxes (Urocyon littoralis catalinae) present a compelling system in which to examine microbial dynamics in wildlife due to their depauperate genomic structure and extremely high prevalence of ceruminous gland tumors. Although the precise cause is yet unknown, infection with ear mites (Otodectes cynotis) has been linked to chronic inflammation, which is associated with abnormal cell growth and tumor development. Given the paucity of genomic variation in these foxes, other dimensions of molecular diversity, such as commensal microbes, may be critical to host response and disease pathology. We characterized the host-associated microbiome across six body sites of Santa Catalina Island foxes, and performed differential abundance testing between healthy and mite-infected ear canals. We found that mite infection was significantly associated with reduced microbial diversity and evenness, with the opportunistic pathogen Staphylococcus pseudintermedius dominating the ear canal community. These results suggest that secondary bacterial infection may contribute to the sustained inflammation associated with tumor development. As the emergence of antibiotic resistant strains remains a concern of the medical, veterinary, and conservation communities, uncovering high relative abundance of S. pseudintermedius provides critical insight into the pathogenesis of this complex system. Through use of culture-independent sequencing techniques, this study contributes to the broader effort of applying a more inclusive understanding of molecular diversity to questions within wildlife disease ecology.