Why study songbirds?
Very little research, except possibly that conducted directly on humans, is aimed toward understanding the biology of only one type of organism. Because the basic biology of every animal is the same, results obtained in one species are applicable on a broad level to others and to real life. Most biological research makes use of model organisms, or species that are well-suited for studying a particular question or system. For example, Hodgkin and Huxley, scientists who studied how nerves conduct impulses, worked with squid because of their large neurons that were easy to study. As a result, most of what we know about the conduction of nerve impulses in humans came from research on squid. Similarly, much of what we know about genes and pattern development in humans came from work on fruit flies.
The interests of our lab lie in how hormones affect brain structure and function. Songbirds are excellent models for our research questions for the following reasons:
1. They exhibit remarkable brain plasticity. Songbirds are famous for the large and obvious changes that occur in their brains in response to hormone fluctuations. You don’t even need a microscope to see differences in brain morphology between a bird with high vs. low testosterone, or between a male and a female. The magnitude of these changes, like the giant squid neurons, makes songbirds obvious models for studying plasticity, seasonality, and the neuroendocrine control of behavior.
2. They exhibit vocal learning. Songbirds and parrots are able to learn vocalization patterns from other members of their species, making their vocal development more similar to humans than any mammal.
3. There is huge variation in social behavior across species. Researchers in the field of ornithology have been amassing an impressive body of literature pertaining to the social behavior of thousands of species of wild birds. As a result, we know for over 4,000 species whether they defend territories or live in social groups, whether they form pair bonds, how they communicate and how they care for their offspring. This database on behavior is unparalleled in any vertebrate group, and can be used to guide research into the neural mechanisms underlying pair bonding, aggression, sociality, parenting, and many other social behaviors.
4. They are easily studied in their natural habitat. To be valuable and informative, research in neuroscience should be conducted using ethologically relevant tasks and contexts close the animals’ natural state. Few neuroscientists, however, are developing techniques to study wild populations. We are developing tools to study comparative behavioral neuroendocrinology in animals’ natural habitats.
My research is not limited to songbirds. Over the course of my career, I have studied rats, mice, chickens, frogs, spiders and humans. Recently I have collaborated with other labs that work with humans, non-human primates, mice, and social insects.