Microbial Ecology

, Volume 78, Issue 3, pp 665–676 | Cite as

Microbial Ecology of the Western Gull (Larus occidentalis)

  • Susan CockerhamEmail author
  • Becky Lee
  • Rachael A. Orben
  • Robert M. Suryan
  • Leigh G. Torres
  • Pete Warzybok
  • Russell Bradley
  • Jaime Jahncke
  • Hillary S. Young
  • Cleber Ouverney
  • Scott A. Shaffer


Avian species host diverse communities of microorganisms which have important roles in the life of birds, including increased metabolism, protection from disease, and immune system development. Along with high human populations and a diversity of human uses of coastal zones, anthropogenic food sources are becoming increasingly available to some species, including gulls. Anthropogenic associations increase the likelihood of encountering foreign or pathogenic bacteria. Diseases in birds caused by bacteria are a substantial source of avian mortality; therefore, it is essential to characterize the microbiome of seabirds. Here, we determined both core and environmentally derived microbial communities of breeding western gulls (Larus occidentalis) from six colonies in California and Oregon. Using DNA extracted from bacterial swabs of the bill, cloaca, and feet of gulls, 16S rRNA gene sequencing was performed targeting the V4 region. We identified a total of 8542 operational taxonomic units (OTUs) from 75 gulls. Sixty-eight OTUs were identified in gulls from all six colonies with the greatest representation from phyla’s of Firmicutes, Proteobacteria, Bacteroidetes, and Actinobacteria. Overall, microbial richness based on Chao’s Abundance-based Coverage Estimator (ACE) index was similar for all colonies (mean = 2347 OTUs) with the smallest coastal colonies having the highest richness (mean = 2626 OTUs) and the largest colonies, located farther off-shore, having the lowest (mean = 2068 OTUs). This survey represents the most in-depth assessment to date of microbes associated with western gulls, and the first study to identify both species-specific and environmentally derived bacteria across multiple populations.


Avian bacteria Ecology Western gull Larus occidentalis 16S rRNA Firmicutes 



The authors wish to thank P. Morris, G. Taylor, C. Perez, J. Jelincic, C.A. Clatterbuck, S.A. Loredo, A.J. Gladics, J. Dolliver J. Porquez, and E. Pickett for assistance in the field. We thank the UC Natural Reserve System and Oikonos for logistical support at Año Nuevo Island. Travel to the Farallon Islands was made possible by the generosity of the Farallon Patrol. Financial support by grants from SJSU-Powers Scholarship, Myers Trust Foundation, the John and Betty Davidson Research fellowship, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Permission to conduct the research was granted by Año Nuevo State Park, California State Parks, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, US Fish and Wildlife Service Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge (SUP# 81641), the Golden Gate National Park Service (GOGA-2016-SCI-0001), Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Oregon State University (OSU). All animal research was conducted in accordance with approvals from San Jose State University Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (SJSU 979), Point Blue Conservation Science, California Parks, the National Park Service, and the UC Natural Reserve System. Bird Banding permits, Migratory Bird Treaty Act permits, and Special Use Permits for all research were granted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey. The authors are grateful to the anonymous referees for their insightful comments on this manuscript during the review process. This work represents the Master of Science thesis of S. Cockerham, San Jose State University.

Supplementary material

248_2019_1352_MOESM1_ESM.docx (162 kb)
Fig. S1 Rarefaction curves of samples from all gull colonies (DOCX 161 kb)
248_2019_1352_MOESM2_ESM.docx (303 kb)
Fig. S2 The percent abundance of the top four phyla found in a) the overall colony composition, b) the core bacteria that was found in all colonies, and on all birds, and c) in the environmentally derived bacteria that is unique bacteria found on the feet. Only phyla with > 1% relative abundance are shown (DOCX 302 kb)
248_2019_1352_MOESM3_ESM.docx (80 kb)
Table S1 Taxonomic Categorization of all 16S DNA gull samples (8516 OTUs). (DOCX 79 kb)
248_2019_1352_MOESM4_ESM.docx (96 kb)
Table S2 Taxonomic Categorization of Core 16S DNA gull samples (68 OTUs). (DOCX 96 kb)
248_2019_1352_MOESM5_ESM.docx (83 kb)
Table S3 Taxonomic Categorization of Environmental 16S DNA gull samples (2117 OTUs). (DOCX 82 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Susan Cockerham
    • 1
    Email author
  • Becky Lee
    • 1
  • Rachael A. Orben
    • 2
  • Robert M. Suryan
    • 2
    • 3
  • Leigh G. Torres
    • 4
  • Pete Warzybok
    • 5
  • Russell Bradley
    • 5
  • Jaime Jahncke
    • 5
  • Hillary S. Young
    • 6
  • Cleber Ouverney
    • 1
  • Scott A. Shaffer
    • 1
    • 7
  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesSan José State UniversitySan JoseUSA
  2. 2.Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Hatfield Marine Science CenterOregon State UniversityNewportUSA
  3. 3.Alaska Fisheries Science Center, Auke Bay LaboratoriesNOAA FisheriesJuneauUSA
  4. 4.Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Marine Mammal InstituteOregon State University, Hatfield Marine Science CenterNewportUSA
  5. 5.Point Blue Conservation SciencePetalumaUSA
  6. 6.Ecology, Evolution, and Marine BiologyUniversity of CaliforniaSanta BarbaraUSA
  7. 7.Institute of Marine SciencesUniversity of CaliforniaSanta CruzUSA

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