The Lattin Lab at Louisiana State University

What we can learn from sparrows

To some people the house sparrow is a cute little bird. To others it is an invasive species that competes with native birds, like Eastern bluebirds, for nesting sites. To me, they are an invaluable resource that allows me to improve our understanding of the impact of stress on animals and humans.

I am a new Assistant Professor at Louisiana State University, and I'm thrilled to be starting my own lab after many years of graduate school and postdoctoral training. The focus of my research is to understand how different neurotransmitters and hormones help animals successfully choose mates, raise young, escape from predators, and survive harsh winters and other challenging conditions. The hormone and neurotransmitter pathways I study are very similar in all vertebrate animals, from fish to birds to mammals, so sparrow research can help us understand how these systems work in humans and other animals. One of the major areas of my research is the stress response. While stress helps animals and humans survive and cope with challenges, too much stress is bad and causes health problems. Yet we still don’t have a clear understanding of how and why stress switches from being helpful to harmful, or why some individuals, or some species, are relatively resilient to the negative effects of stress while others are more vulnerable. To address these questions, my research uses a combination of lab and field studies, and techniques from hormone sampling to brain imaging.

Understanding stress in wild animal populations is important because stressors like habitat destruction, climate change, and species invasions now affect most, if not all, animal species. Knowing more about how these different kinds of stressors affect animals may allow us to save some species that might otherwise go extinct. Stress is also a major risk factor for depression, heart disease, drug abuse, and suicide in humans. ~8% of Americans will experience post-traumatic stress disorder at some point in their lives. Understanding more about the physiology of stress could help lead to the development of new medicines and procedures to reduce stress in humans and animals.

My research has already led to some important discoveries. For example, I became concerned about how oil might affect the stress response in wildlife after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. To study this, I mixed very small amounts of oil (equal to 1% of food weight) into sparrows’ food. Doing this research in a lab environment allowed me to control a lot of things that might vary in the wild and make it hard to draw clear conclusions about cause and effect. While there were no obvious outward signs this had any effect, and many potential biomarkers of oil exposure in the blood were also normal, blood sampling revealed that birds were not able to secrete normal concentrations of stress hormones after exposure to a standardized stressor (a brief period of restraint in a clean, breathable cloth bag) and an injection of adrenocorticotropic hormone. In my publications on this research, I suggested that stress hormone concentrations could be used as a biological indicator of oil exposure in wildlife. This research is being used by other scientists as evidence that some health problems and deaths they saw in wild dolphins and sea turtles after Deepwater Horizon were due to oil exposure.

I care deeply about openness and transparency in scientific research, which is why all of my publications are freely available here on my website. I also maintain a public Twitter account where I frequently post about my work.

If you are interested in joining the Lattin Lab as an undergraduate researcher, a graduate student, or a post-doc, or are interested in a potential scientific collaboration, please reach out to me!