Despite a flood of recent interest in this question for humans, the answer remains a mystery for the vast majority of animals. Gut microbiota are often assumed to provide nutritional benefits, but many insects acquire the majority of their nutrients during larval feeding, leaving less opportunity for bacterial contributions to adult nutrition. In fact, when food is scarce the adult gut flora might even impose a net reproductive cost.
We tested this prediction in the Mormon fritillary butterfly (Speyeria mormonia), a denizen of mountain meadows in the American Rockies. We experimentally subjected wild caught butterflies to a brief burst of antibiotics to disrupt their gut flora and then maintained them with either ad lib feeding or a 50% starvation diet. Contrary to our
predictions, the number of bacteria in the gut did not correlate with butterfly fitness even if the butterfly was starved, though a few individual bacteria species were associated with increased or decreased lifespan.
Overall, these results suggest that gut bacteria may have little net
effect on some animals. – Alison Ravenscraft, NIH PERT Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Arizona
Ravenscraft A, Kish N, Peay K, Boggs C. No evidence that gut microbiota impose a net cost on their butterfly host. Mol Ecol. 2019;28:2100–2117. https://doi.org/10.1111/mec.15057