Background Early development of the gut microbiome is an essential part of neonate health in animals. It is unclear whether the acquisition of gut microbes is different between domesticated animals and their wild counterparts. In this study, fecal samples from ten domestic conventionally managed (DCM) Standardbred and ten semi-feral managed (SFM) Shetland-type pony foals and dams were compared using 16S rRNA sequencing to identify differences in the development of the foal hindgut microbiome related to time and management.
Results Gut microbiome diversity of dams was higher than foals overall, and foals from both groups at Week 1 had less diverse gut microbiomes than subsequent weeks. The core microbiomes of SFM dams and foals had more taxa overall, and greater numbers of taxa within species groups when compared to DCM dams and foals. The gut microbiomes of SFM foals demonstrated enhanced diversity of key groups: Verrucomicrobia (RFP12), Ruminococcaceae, Fusobacterium spp., and Bacteroides spp., based on age and management. Lactic acid bacteria Lactobacillus spp. and Lactobacillaceae gen. were enriched only in DCM foals, specifically during their second and third week of life. Predicted microbiome functions estimated computationally suggested that SFM foals had higher mean sequence counts for taxa contributing to the digestion of lipids, simple and complex carbohydrates, and protein. DCM foal microbiomes were more similar to their dams in week five and six than were SFM foals at the same age.
Conclusions This study demonstrates the impact of management on the development of the foal gut microbiome in the first 6 weeks of life. The higher numbers of taxa within and between bacterial groups found in SFM dams and foals suggests more diversity and functional redundancy in their gut microbiomes, which could lend greater stability and resiliency to these communities. The colonization of lactic acid bacteria in the early life of DCM foals suggests enrichment in response to the availability of dams’ feed. Thus, management type is an important driver of gut microbiome establishment on horses, and we may look to semi-feral horses for guidance in defining a healthy gut microbiome for domestic horses.