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LSU Biologist Examines Animal Resilience to Stress

LSU biologist studies stress resistance in animals

Christine Lattin looks for eggs in a European starling nest box. Photo credit: Lattin Lab

As humans continue to impact the world around us, often resulting in the destruction of wildlife and their habitats, LSU researcher Christine Lattin believes a better understanding of how some animals thrive while others don’t adapt will enable us to better understand human and animal stress.

Research conducted in her lab, known as the Lattin Lab of Neuroendocrinology and Behavior, looks at stress hormones and other biological systems in sparrows and starlings that cope with challenges they encounter in the wild, such as predation, inclement weather, or lack of food.

Through extensive research, the Lattin Lab has uncovered striking similarities between the way humans and birds cope with stress.

As in humans, sparrows’ excessive production of glucocorticoid hormones and certain neurotransmitters can cause stress that can quickly go from helpful in problem solving to detrimental to its survival.

“I am interested in this change; how do these systems go from helpful to harmful, and why are some people highly resistant to stress while others are vulnerable to the negative effects of stress?” asked Lattin.

Lattin explains that understanding how and why stress becomes harmful in birds helps us understand stress-related diseases like anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, because birds, humans, and other vertebrates cope with stress very similarly.

Lattin’s controlled experimental research opens doors for scientists to discover new types of therapies and drugs that could help humans and animals cope with chronic stress. She believes her research is more important now than ever.

“Many people are dealing with trauma right now after two years of a pandemic. I think a lot of people are experiencing chronic stress that’s unprecedented in our lives,” Lattin said. “As a society, this pandemic has been an incredible two-year chronic stressor unlike anything we’ve seen before, and it’s really been a huge adjustment challenge.”

Lattin studies sparrows and starlings because of her background in avian research and the large amount of research previously done on these species.

Lattin worked for a year at a bird of prey center in Ohio, where she learned to care for injured and sick raptors and helped nurse them back to health so they could be released back into the wild. During this experience, she recognized the many similarities between humans and birds. She saw the differences between the species as an opportunity to learn from them.

“Birds are an important group for understanding the health of an ecosystem and the negative impacts that humans can have on ecosystems,” Lattin said.

During this research, the Lattin Lab discovered that some individual sparrows are fearful of new things and will not approach new objects, while others are not fearful and will approach quickly. Lattin believes that the different personalities within the same herd can contribute to their success in adapting. Some of Lattin’s current research involves examining sparrows’ fearful behavior towards new things, also known as neophobia, in a controlled environment. As humans continue to build roads, shopping malls and settlements on what were once natural habitats, Lattin points out that sparrows and starlings have adapted exceptionally well to the changes around them, while most other bird species have not. This adaptive behavior has been so successful that house sparrows are considered one of the most successful invasive species on the planet and have successfully established themselves almost worldwide.

Socially, the birds flock together, and Lattin’s research shows that they can exhibit “social learning” by teaching each other that the new objects are nonthreatening.

Part of Lattin’s interest in studying glucocorticoid hormones began after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. This oil spill would result in animals ingesting oil for years, affecting ecosystems and food webs.

Their research, funded by the US Environmental Protection Agency, found that very small amounts of oil ingested by birds would negatively affect their ability to secrete hormones vital to coping with stress.

Lattin’s findings were published and cited by other researchers, who were puzzled that they continued to find dead sea turtles and dolphins on beaches after the oil spill.

Lattin’s previous research on sparrows allowed the researchers to understand the effects of even small amounts of oil on the adrenal glands, which ultimately may have led to many animal deaths after the spill.

“It’s proof that oil companies are being blamed for wildlife deaths,” Lattin said. “Without this type of research controlled in a laboratory setting, we have no way of knowing what exactly is causing these types of diseases that occur in wildlife.”

Although her research has been questioned by animal rights groups like PETA, Lattin argues that there is an absolute need for controlled laboratory experiments to understand the consequences of stress and different types of stressors, such as oil spills, road noise, and other human-caused stressors wildlife. In addition, Lattin said that without animal testing, there would be no therapies for cancer, drugs and veterinary medicines to help humans and animals.

“We would have no information on how wildlife is coping with the changed planet that we continue to change,” Lattin said. “Animal experiments are necessary, and they also save human lives.”

Animal experimentation requires extensive oversight, rules, regulations and permits to ensure it is conducted in the most humane manner possible to minimize suffering.

The Lattin Lab continues to explore ways they can help alleviate the stress of animals who are struggling to adapt to a human-disabled environment.

“You have to be really careful when doing any kind of research with animals. One tries to minimize negative effects and suffering. But unfortunately, at this point, there is no way to study stress without stressing the animals to scale,” Lattin said.

Lattin’s love of books, nature and writing eventually led to a career in science she never thought possible.

“Scientists do the work that we do because we believe it’s important to contribute knowledge that can help the planet and wildlife,” Lattin said.

The first-generation college graduate got an office job at a small company that provided language translation services, but missed working outdoors and with animals. Her next job was working with children in environmental education. Her love of working with children and the outdoors led her to realize that she wanted to pursue a career in biology and education.

Lattin’s interest and observation of birds in her area led her to not only educate others, but also to ask and answer questions of her own.

“I thought, why not? Why not me? Why can’t I be a scientist too?” said Lattin.

Provided by Louisiana State University

Citation: LSU Biologist Examines Animal Resilience to Stress (2022, May 2) Retrieved May 2, 2022 from https://sciencex.com/wire-news/412918120/lsu-biologist-examines-animal-resilience-to-stress .html

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