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Friday, February 26, 2010

Vertebrate DNA in Fecal Samples from Bonobos and Gorillas: Evidence for Meat Consumption or Artefact?

Hofreiter M, Kreuz E, Eriksson J, Schubert G, Hohmann G (2010) Vertebrate DNA in Fecal Samples from Bonobos and Gorillas: Evidence for Meat Consumption or Artefact? PLoS ONE 5(2): e9419. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009419

Deciphering the behavioral repertoire of great apes is a challenge for several reasons. First, due to their elusive behavior in dense forest environments, great ape populations are often difficult to observe. Second, members of the genus Pan are known to display a great variety in their behavioral repertoire; thus, observations from one population are not necessarily representative for other populations. For example, bonobos (Pan paniscus) are generally believed to consume almost no vertebrate prey. However, recent observations show that at least some bonobo populations may consume vertebrate prey more commonly than previously believed. We investigated the extent of their meat consumption using PCR amplification of vertebrate mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) segments from DNA extracted from bonobo feces. As a control we also attempted PCR amplifications from gorilla feces, a species assumed to be strictly herbivorous.

Principal Findings
We found evidence for consumption of a variety of mammalian species in about 16% of the samples investigated. Moreover, 40% of the positive DNA amplifications originated from arboreal monkeys. However, we also found duiker and monkey mtDNA in the gorilla feces, albeit in somewhat lower percentages. Notably, the DNA sequences isolated from the two ape species fit best to the species living in the respective regions. This result suggests that the sequences are of regional origin and do not represent laboratory contaminants.

Our results allow at least three possible and mutually not exclusive conclusions. First, all results may represent contamination of the feces by vertebrate DNA from the local environment. Thus, studies investigating a species' diet from feces DNA may be unreliable due to the low copy number of DNA originating from diet items. Second, there is some inherent difference between the bonobo and gorilla feces, with only the later ones being contaminated. Third, similar to bonobos, for which the consumption of monkeys has only recently been documented, the gorilla population investigated (for which very little observational data are as yet available) may occasionally consume small vertebrates. Although the last explanation is speculative, it should not be discarded a-priori given that observational studies continue to unravel new behaviors in great ape species.

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