Songbird Stress Tests Offer Revealing Information for Conservationists

A biologist from LSU has successfully used PET scans on house sparrows and shown that dopamine receptors, body mass, behaviors, and hormone levels tended toward anxious loss over a four-week study.

Captivity is for the birds, suggests a seminal study on the effects of dopamine levels and related stressors on wild songbirds conducted by Assistant Professor Christine Lattin of Louisiana State University.

Utilizing Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans for the first time ever on non-human subjects, Lattin measured dopamine levels as related to various stressors in house sparrows. The findings are revealing not just for birds, but for human stress science as well. 

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Why this experiment was special

The type of biomedical imaging technology allowed by a PET scan offered a premier insight into how wildlife is currently coping with environmental changes, and thus how we can develop more effective strategies to protect it. The house sparrows were captured and monitored for hormone, body mass, and behavior changes over the course of a four-week captivity period. 

From a conservation standpoint, this study illustrates a marked decline in songbird stress resilience over time and further emphasizes our collective human responsibility to take heed of our impact on the natural world.

The data from this study proves that protracted exposure to stressors inflicted by human captivity leads to a quick timeframe of loss and diminishment in this species.

What does this have to do with equivalent stress in humans?

The neurobiological effects of stress on the songbirds have near-perfect human equivalents that have been proven time and again in psychology, as well as multitudinous other branches of brain science. For instance, when dopamine receptors decreased in the test birds, they all lost body mass. A long-established corollary exists between human stress levels and significant weight gain or loss. 

Nervous behaviors in the low-dopamine/high-captivity birds expressed in physiological ways, like feather ruffling. The human counterpart might be fingernail biting or hair twirling. Learn more about how stress impacts the human brain and body by watching the video below.

What's the take-away?

Two vital conclusions emerge from this songbird stress study that are of great importance to humanity.

The first, that we cannot expect Mother Nature to successfully habituate to our increased demands on space, has been supported by nearly every field of ecological study for years.

The second, that we can learn valuable information on how to protect our own individual holds on mental tranquility, however tenuous, by observing the effects of lowered dopamine receptors in the studied birds, teaches us yet again of the innate communion humanity shares with other creatures of the natural world. 

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Considering these two conclusions in tandem results in a veritable call-to-arms for conservation-minded thinkers to realize that the sliding scale of human-sponsored environmental damage is just that, and certainly flows both ways. 

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