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Stress in early life of zebra finches reduces life expectancy - and that of partners

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17 August 2011

BBSRC-funded research at the University of Glasgow suggests that exposure to stress hormones early in life can have an impact on life expectancy of an individual zebra finch and also on the life expectancy of their mate.

"Other research led us to expect that increased stress exposure in early life would reduce adult lifespan', said Professor Pat Monaghan who led the research, "but we were not expecting such a big effect on breeding partners. Unstressed birds had mortality rates that were four times higher than normal if they were simply given partners that had experienced stress earlier in their lives."

Zebra finches. Image: Ruedi Nager, University of Glasgow

Zebra finches.
Image: Ruedi Nager, University of Glasgow

The way in which the body responds to stress is essentially the same in all the higher vertebrates including humans and zebra finches. And hence this research could give insights into how exposure to stress hormones early in life can program an individual's response to its environment in later life.

The researchers imitated a stressful environment by giving half of the birds in the study a natural dose of stress hormones for a two week period when they were chicks, while the other half were not dosed. After this, all the birds were kept in the same stress-free environment until they became adults.

Their greater exposure to stress in early life made the exposed birds more reactive to stress when they became adults - they reacted much more than the 'laid-back' birds that had not been given the stress hormones in early life.

While this increased sensitivity might be a good thing for birds who would want to avoid being eaten in an environment full of predators, increased exposure to stress hormones is known to be bad for health.

The birds were also formed into pairs, allowed to breed and their lifespan was monitored. The results showed that birds that had been exposed to a period of stress as chicks had much shorter lives once they became adults. Surprisingly, their mates also lived shorter lives even if the mate was an unexposed bird.

The research team believes that part of the reason for the partner effect might be that these jittery individuals are not very comforting to be with.

ENDS

Notes to editors

For more information and to arrange an interview with Professor Pat Monaghan please contact Peter Aitchison (see external contact below).

About BBSRC

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £445M, we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk .
For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes .

External contact

Peter Aitchison, University of Glasgow Media Relations Office

tel: 0141 330 3535