There is growing evidence that anthropogenic sources of antibiotics and antimicrobial-resistant bacteria can spill over into natural ecosystems, raising questions about the role wild animals play in the emergence, maintenance, and dispersal of antibiotic resistance genes. In particular, we lack an understanding of how resistance genes circulate within wild animal populations, including whether specific host characteristics, such as social associations, promote interhost transmission of these genes. In this study, we used social network analysis to explore the forces shaping population-level patterns of resistant Escherichia coli in wild giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis) and assess the relative importance of social contact for the dissemination of resistant E. coli between giraffe. Of 195 giraffe sampled, only 5.1% harbored E. coli isolates resistant to one or more tested antibiotics. Whole-genome sequencing on a subset of resistant isolates revealed a number of acquired resistance genes with linkages to mobile genetic elements. However, we found no evidence that the spread of resistance genes among giraffe was facilitated by interhost associations. Giraffe with lower social degree were more likely to harbor resistant E. coli, but this relationship was likely driven by a correlation between an individual’s social connectedness and age. Indeed, resistant E. coli was most frequently detected in socially isolated neonates, indicating that resistant E. coli may have a selective advantage in the gastrointestinal tracts of neonates compared to other age classes. Taken together, these results suggest that the maintenance of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria in wild populations may, in part, be determined by host traits and microbial competition dynamics within the host.
IMPORTANCE Antimicrobial resistance represents a significant threat to human health, food security, and the global economy. To fully understand the evolution and dissemination of resistance genes, a complete picture of antimicrobial resistance in all biological compartments, including natural ecosystems, is required. The environment and wild animals may act as reservoirs for anthropogenically derived resistance genes that could be transferrable to clinically relevant bacteria of humans and domestic animals. Our study investigated the possible transmission mechanisms for antimicrobial-resistant bacteria within a wild animal population and, more broadly, contributes to our understanding of how resistance genes are spread and maintained in natural ecosystems.