Graduate Student Seed Grant Projects

The physiological causes of elevated aggression in urban birds


Scott Davies, Biological Sciences; Faculty Mentors: Kendra Sewall and Ignacio Moore, Biological Sciences

Urbanization profoundly changes the environment, and to persist urban animals must adjust. One such adjustment is that urban birds, including song sparrows (Melospiza melody) are frequently more aggressive than their rural counterparts. However, the proximate causes of this habitat-related disparity in aggression remain largely a mystery.
We will use food supplementation to elevate aggression in rural song sparrows and examine three putative physiological mechanisms underlying behavioral adjustments. Specifically, we will investigate whether circulating hormone levels and two measures of neural activity within a candidate circuit in the brain, the social behavior network, are correlated with aggression. If, as we predict, the activity in the social behavior network in food supplemented rural birds is similar to that of control urban birds, then modulation of this circuit should contribute to the adjustment to urban living.
This study will advance our understanding of how animals adjust to urbanization, a pressing global environmental challenge. Identifying the physiological basis of behavioral adjustments to urbanization is an important step in predicting the consequences of future projected urbanization for the health of individuals and populations.