Even before it is born the conditions an animal experiences can have profound long-term effects on later phenotypes. This phenomenon of developmental programming has led to an increasing focus on how pre-natal conditions can impact on the health and welfare of animals, particularly in avian species. For example, if a mother experiences stress during egg laying a higher level of stress hormones are deposited into the egg, which can alter the development of the neuroendocrine system then controls the ability to respond to stress. In later life adults exposed to pre-natal stress have been shown to exhibit altered stress responses, fear-related behaviours and there is very good evidence that they are more likely to develop negative health issues.
However, the main focus of research in this areas has been into in-ovo factors, such as hormones or yolk nutritional value. Avian embryos are regularly exposed to ‘external’ acoustic stimuli, including natural conspecific calls and anthropogenic noise. Recent work from the Mechanisms of Behaviour group at St Andrews has shown that embryonic exposure to different sound types can program different neuroendocrine and behavioural phenotypes in early post-natal life in Japanese quail. This suggests that external stimuli may also play a role in shaping later health outcomes and they could be a tool for optimising welfare. However several questions still remain unanswered: 1. Are phenotypic responses to pre-natal acoustic stimuli adaptive in that they prepare an individual for the post-natal environment? 2. How persistent are acoustically altered phenotypes into the post-natal period and 3. What are the mechanisms by which acoustic stimuli alter phenotypic traits in the short and long-term?
This PhD project will utilise a range of techniques to answer these three questions using a well-established captive avian model, the Japanese quail. There will also be the possibility to extend the work into free living birds, using the semi-precocial herring gull as a model. The project will integrate information across different levels of complexity, from organismal to molecular to truly understand how pre-natal acoustic stimuli can shape avian phenotypes. The student will gain experience in behavioural assays, bioacoustics, physiological assays, neuroendocrine measurement, immunohistochemistry and cutting edge molecular techniques. One aim of the project will be to use RNA seq analyses to identify candidate mechanisms for the potential programming effects of different acoustic stimuli. Work on captive species may also lead to the development of tools for the poultry industry to maximise avian chick welfare, which would allow the student to gain experience of applied research.
• 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. Advances in the Study of Behavior, 50; 87-126.
• Rivera, M., Louder, M.I.M., Kleindorfer, S. et al. (2018). Avian prenatal auditory stimulation: progress and perspectives. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 72: 112. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-018-2528-0
To apply for this project, please go to this link.