Measuring the stress response in birds, without capturing and handling them is now a reality, thanks to the research findings of Dr. Joshua Tabh, a recent Ph.D. graduate from Trent’s Environmental & Life Sciences program, .
With the use of temperature sensing cameras, Dr. Tabh, together with his supervisors, Dr. Gary Burness, Trent Biology professor, and Dr. Gabriela Mastromonaco, director of conservation science at the Toronto Zoo, monitored the facial temperature of birds and how their body temperature fluctuates in response to stress.
“Our results suggest that we can remotely detect and quantify the magnitude of a stress response by measuring facial temperature alone. Perhaps more interestingly, our findings are also the first to suggest that birds may shirk temperature control when exposed to a non-thermal stressor,” explains Dr. Tabh. “Our observations suggest that in the cold, birds allow their body temperatures to fall when exposed to an unexpected and stressful event. By doing so, less energy can be spent on warming, thus freeing energy to be used toward coping with the stressor. In the warmth, however, a reversed response occurs, with body temperatures rising rather than falling after exposure to a stressor. In this case, less energy is spent toward cooling, which is again helpful because it frees up energy for use in the stress response.”
The study also found that chronic stress could disrupt a birds' capacity to maintain a safe core body temperature, which can lead to meaningful health consequences in the long term. This is particularly relevant when one considers chronic stressors such as vehicle traffic, noise, and lights in urban environments.
“The technique has wide-reaching implications for non-invasive monitoring of animals, particularly those which it would not be possible to handle,” says Prof. Burness.
Gaining a birds eye view at Trent
Dr. Tabh chose Trent for his Ph.D. studies largely to work with Prof. Burness and the collaborative nature of research at the University.
“Prof. Burness and Dr. Mastromonaco regularly collaborate on projects that aim to use physiological information to better conservation programs,” says Dr. Tabh. “I benefited from this collaboration, as well as Trent’s ties to other organizations within the conservation realm, like the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.”
Prof. Burness played a significant role in fine-tuning Dr. Tabh’s research.
“When I first came to Trent I had very specific research ideas that sought to address very specific problems,” he explains. “Gary inspired me to critically examine these ideas. Doing so helped me recognize that each was nested within a broader set of theoretical questions about how animals function in a changing world, with a changing climate.”
Dr. Tabh’s research findings have been published in several publications, and he is currently pursuing further research opportunities. “I would like to re-open resting research questions about how, mechanistically, animals change their physiology to match a specific thermal environment. From there, we can begin asking whether these mechanisms are sufficient for some species to keep pace with our projected rates of climate change.”