Huddling is highly evolved as a cooperative behavioral strategy for social mammals to maximize their fitness in harsh environments. Huddling behavior can change psychological and physiological responses. The coevolution of mammals with their microbial communities confers fitness benefits to both partners. The gut microbiome is a key regulator of host immune and metabolic functions. We hypothesized that huddling behavior altered energetics and thermoregulation by shaping caecal microbiota in small herbivores. Brandt’s voles (Lasiopodomys brandtii) were maintained in a group (huddling) or as individuals (separated) and were exposed to warm (23？±？1 °C) and cold (4？±？1 °C) air temperatures (Ta).
Voles exposed to cold Ta had higher energy intake, resting metabolic rate (RMR) and nonshivering thermogenesis (NST) than voles exposed to warm Ta. Huddling voles had lower RMR and NST than separated voles in cold. In addition, huddling voles had a higher surface body temperature (Tsurface), but lower core body temperature (Tcore) than separated voles, suggesting a lower set-point of Tcore in huddling voles. Both cold and huddling induced a marked variation in caecal bacterial composition, which was associated with the lower Tcore. Huddling voles had a higher α and β-diversity, abundance of Lachnospiraceae and Veillonellaceae, but lower abundance of Cyanobacteria, Tenericutes, TM7, Comamonadaceae, and Sinobacteraceae than separated voles. Huddling or cold resulted in higher concentrations of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), particularly acetic acid and butyric acid when compared to their counterparts. Transplantation of caecal microbiota from cold-separated voles but not from cold-huddling voles induced significant increases in energy intake and RMR compared to that from warm-separated voles.
These findings demonstrate that the remodeling of gut microbiota, which is associated with a reduction in host Tcore, mediates cold- and huddling-induced energy intake and thermoregulation and therefore orchestrates host metabolic and thermal homeostasis. It highlights the coevolutionary mechanism of host huddling and gut microbiota in thermoregulation and energy saving for winter survival in endotherms.