Background: Compared to horses and ponies, donkeys have increased degradation of dietary fiber. The longer total mean retention time of feed in the donkey gut has been proposed to be the basis of this, because of the increased time available for feed to be acted upon by enzymes and the gut microbiota. However, differences in terms of microbial concentrations and/or community composition in the hindgut may also underpin the increased degradation of fiber in donkeys. Therefore, a study was conducted to assess if differences existed between the fecal microbiota of pony, donkey and hybrids derived from them (i.e. pony × donkey) when fed the same forage diet.
Results: Fecal community composition of prokaryotes and anaerobic fungi significantly differed between equine types. The relative abundance of two bacterial genera was significantly higher in donkey compared to both pony and pony x donkey: Lachnoclostridium 10 and ‘probable genus 10’ from the Lachnospiraceae family. The relative abundance of Piromyces was significantly lower in donkey compared to pony × donkey, with pony not significantly differing from either of the other equine types. In contrast, the uncultivated genus SK3 was only found in donkey (4 of the 8 animals). The number of anaerobic fungal OTUs was also significantly higher in donkey than in the other two equine types, with no significant differences found between pony and pony × donkey. Equine types did not significantly differ with respect to prokaryotic alpha diversity, fecal dry matter content or fecal concentrations of bacteria, archaea and anaerobic fungi.
Conclusions: Donkey fecal microbiota differed from that of both pony and pony × donkey. These differences related to a higher relative abundance and diversity of taxa with known, or speculated, roles in plant material degradation. These findings are consistent with the previously reported increased fiber degradation in donkeys compared to ponies, and suggest that the hindgut microbiota plays a role. This offers novel opportunities for pony and pony × donkey to extract more energy from dietary fiber via microbial mediated strategies. This could potentially decrease the need for energy dense feeds which are a risk factor for gut-mediated disease.