Stress and behavioural responses to change
It is widely accepted that individual animals respond differently to changes and disturbance, and that to understand population-level responses to change we need to understand how individuals vary in their responses. Doing so, however, is challenging as it requires long-term behavioural observations which, particularly for species of conservation concern, are often not available or unobtainable. At the same time, we know from studies in captive animals that the glucocorticoid response to an immediate stressor can vary repeatably among individuals, and can be predictive of how an individual copes with stress. Moreover, the nature of this response is significantly related to early life conditions. In spite of its obvious relevance to wild animals responding to environmental change, this has rarely been applied to wild animals.
During a Research Fellowhip (funded by the Leverhulme Trust, 2015-2017) based at the University of St Andrews, I collaborated with Dr Karen Spencer and the Mechanisms of Behaviour group to develop a model system to further test the behaviour-stress physiology in wild birds. Specifically, I set up a network of bird feeders in a small woodland, equipped with PIT tag readers that automatically record visits of birds fitted with PIT tags to each feeder. At the same time, we can measure standardised physiological stress responses in these birds, as well as experimentally manipulate their exposure to stress as nestlings.
This work is continues, I am actively maintaining the feeder system during the winter.
Moreover, I would be keen to hear of any undergraduate, MSc or PhD students interested in using this system or in collaborations using existing data.
Selected relevant publications:
- Spencer KA, & Minderman J (2018). Developmental Programming via Activation of the Hypothalamic–Pituitary–Adrenal Axis: A New Role for Acoustic Stimuli in Shaping Behavior? Advances in the Study of Behavior (Vol. 50, pp. 87–126). DOI:10.1016/bs.asb.2017.11.003