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Plumage microbiota covaries with the major histocompatibility complex in blue petrels

  • Sarah Leclaire
  • Maria Strandh
  • Gaia Dell’Ariccia
  • Marianne Gabirot
  • Helena Westerdahl
  • Francesco Bonadonna
Publishing year: 2018-12-24
Language: English
Publication/Series: Molecular Ecology
Document type: Journal article
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell

Abstract english

To increase fitness, a wide range of vertebrates preferentially mate with partners that are dissimilar at the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) or that have high MHC diversity. Although MHC often can be assessed through olfactory cues, the mechanism by which MHC genes influence odour remains largely unclear. MHC class IIB molecules, which enable recognition and elimination of extracellular bacteria, have been suggested to influence odour indirectly by shaping odour-producing microbiota, i.e. bacterial communities. However, there is little evidence of the predicted covariation between an animal's MHC genotype and its bacterial communities in scent-producing body surfaces. Here, using high-throughput sequencing, we tested the covariation between MHC class IIB genotypes and feather microbiota in the blue petrel (Halobaena caerulea), a seabird with highly developed olfaction that has been suggested to rely on oduor cues during an MHC-based mate choice. First, we show that individuals with similar MHC class IIB profiles also have similar bacterial assemblages in their feathers. Then, we show that individuals with high MHC diversity have less diverse feather microbiota and also a reduced abundance of a bacterium of the genus Arsenophonus, a genus in which some species are symbionts of avian ectoparasites. Our results, showing that feather microbiota covary with MHC, are consistent with the hypothesis that individual MHC genotype may shape the semiochemical-producing microbiota in birds.


  • Evolutionary Biology
  • Zoology
  • bacteria
  • feathers
  • MHC
  • microbiome,seabirds
  • uropygial gland


  • Molecular Ecology and Evolution Lab
  • ISSN: 0962-1083
Helena Westerdahl
E-mail: helena [dot] westerdahl [at] biol [dot] lu [dot] se

Senior lecturer


+46 46 222 36 69



Research group

Molecular Ecology and Evolution Lab


Doctoral students and postdocs

Research fellows


Luz Garcia-Longoria

PhD students, main supervisor

Samantha Mellinger

PhD students, assistant supervisor

Gustaf Ekelund Ugge

Helena Westerdahl w house sparrow