Investigations of marine mammal skin-associated microbiota are limited to cultivation-based studies of lesioned individuals, resulting in a lack of understanding about the composition of ‘normal’ skin-associated microbial communities, their variation among individuals, and whether or not the microbial communities change with host health or environmental exposures. In this study, bacterial communities associated with the skin of 19 North Pacific humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), including skin from three health-compromised individuals, were examined using small subunit ribosomal RNA gene-based culture-independent techniques. These analyses revealed that the skin-associated bacteria were significantly different from free-living bacterial communities in the surrounding seawater. Two novel groups within the Flavobacteriaceae family of the Bacteroidetes phylum were found to be associated with multiple whales, including a species within the Tenacibaculum genus that associated with 95% of the individuals. Statistical analyses revealed that a group of eight ‘healthy’ whales harboured similar microbial communities, while the health-compromised and other ‘healthy’ animals harboured communities that were unique to the specific animal. These results describe two components of the whale skin bacterial community: a specific and potentially co-evolved fraction, and a more variable microbial community fraction that may offer a diagnostic-type tool for investigating the health and life-related events of these endangered animals.
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