Monday, October 25, 2010

Studying Stress in House Sparrows

Researchers are Radford University are studying the effects of stress on House Sparrows.

As recently as 20 years ago, most research was limited to laboratory rats bred in captivity and monitored through extensive handling by humans.

But wild birds shaped by natural environments and observed remotely by robotic systems may provide a more nuanced picture of biological processes, Davis said.

Once Davis and his students catch some house sparrows, the birds will be transferred to a new aviary at Selu, a research and retreat center owned by Radford University.

There Davis and Selu manager Jeff Armistead have built a state-of-the art research aviary with robotic feeding and monitoring systems. It can house several hundred birds at a time, even separating them into groups so scientists can conduct different studies simultaneously.

Tiny transmitters can be injected into each bird to monitor food intake, hormone levels and other information, which can be shared online with students, faculty and other researchers.

At Selu, Davis' group will observe and analyze hormone and immunity activity in individual birds.

The study of how house sparrows deal with stress hormones may one day lead to better treatments for stress-related illnesses in humans, University of South Florida biologist Lynn "Marty" Martin said.

Martin oversees a large research laboratory devoted to the house sparrow.

Before modern civilization mitigated threats such as starvation, predator attack and exposure to extreme weather, humans evolved in environmental contexts similar to house sparrows.

To survive, humans, like the birds, developed stress response systems that helped them avoid predators (or university professors). But today, those same systems, when triggered by run-ins with a demanding boss or problems at home can, over time, make people sick.
Since House Sparrows are fairly intelligent, the research team has had some difficulty catching them. The birds seem to know to walk under the mist nets rather than fly into them.