An endangered species of carnivorous wild pig has evolved a special gut bacteria which may allow it to create a crust around its prey, researchers claim.
Three species of bee have been found to depend on a single type of gut bacteria to survive in a world with few predators, conditions for their survival and limited food resources.
The black-backed vulture, known as the Spatterer’s jaegler, was the first to investigate and identified the sweet-smelling microbe, Mycobacterium probioticenoides, according to a study in the journal Scientific Reports.
It had adapted to become “immune to competitors” and needed the G. probioticenoides to survive, the scientists reported.
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The researchers identified the bacterium’s use to the honey bee and black-faced vulture, but have yet to discover any effect it has on other insect pollinators such as bees and wasps.
“This is an unusual or peculiar effect for this microbe to have,” said researcher Jorgen Amundsen of the Copenhagen Zoo and Denmark’s Natural History Museum.
“Since this is an effect the bacteria does not develop as the result of evolutionary pressures, it is perhaps because there is more diversity in honey bees and black-faced vultures and the honey bee has this friendly bacteria.
“This study is very important for us as it is the first case where we can see that a combination of honey bees and vultures can benefit from special microbes. This behaviour shows that its individual bacteria can have a protective effect that may allow one of the two species to have a unique diet.”
A black-faced vulture eating a wild pig. Photograph: Michael Oddino/AP
One theory is that the vulture “creates a survival crust around its prey, which it contains with several layers to hold it together”, said the researchers.
The vulture would then stow away its pork inside the crust, allowing it to feast on the meal from a safe distance and increase its chances of survival, the researchers hypothesised.
The Llandudno wild pig is a rare strain of wild pig that thrives in Iceland, and according to the researchers, may have diverged from the wild pig of its native Finland and Norway between 800,000 and 1m years ago.
It was first recorded in 2000, and Amundsen said it was a little known aspect of the animal, which is shaped like a squash rather than the traditional beef cross.
“It was very difficult to find information about the wild pig before this,” he said. “They are more common in Finland and Norway, but not Iceland.”
The research appears to confirm that the spread of disease to other species and the consequent loss of predators were causing the vulture to adapt, according to Dr Guy Nxtreme-Beard of Stanford University.
“We may have lost the trend of omnivorous animals that used to need food for both themselves and for other animals,” he said. “Mycobacterium probioticenoides seems to be colonising the vulture gut, as well as the wild pigs’ gut.”