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UW’s Prather Receives NSF CAREER Award to Study Songbirds

February 24, 2015
man looking at finch sitting on his fingers
Jonathan Prather, an assistant professor in UW’s Department of Zoology and Physiology, recently received an $850,000 NSF CAREER Program Award to study how female songbirds choose a male, based on the quality of its song, for a mate. (UW Photo)

Like Mick Jagger or David Lee Roth wooing female fans with their voices, male songbirds use the same technique to get the attention of the female of the species. However, unlike the backstage ritual after a rock concert, it is the female songbird that ultimately chooses her mate based on the quality of the male’s song.

A University of Wyoming researcher will study this decision-making process of songbirds by assessing how the brain assigns value to sensory stimuli, and then takes action based on that perception. To assist his research efforts, Jonathan Prather, an assistant professor in UW’s Department of Zoology and Physiology, will use an $850,000 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program Award he recently received from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The five-year research grant will pay for graduate students, undergraduate research stipends and community outreach associated with the grant.

“When a female evaluates the quality of a song, they’re getting insight in the (male) bird’s life history,” says Prather, who studies finches and sparrows. “Things like how well he learned to sing; nutrition when he was young; and his nutrition now.”

In female songbirds Prather has studied, male song is the most important factor that influences the female’s choice of mate. That decision is evident in easily quantifiable reproductive behaviors. Prather will study how subjective value of male song is encoded in the female songbird’s brain.

“Songbirds are like humans, in that they use the sounds they learn in communication,” Prather says. “It turns out the tempo in their song is a very important feature in how they (female songbirds) evaluate song quality. If you can sing through a wide range of frequencies and do that rapidly, that is impressive to females.”

What remains unknown is the circuit through which evaluation directs selective motor activation, he says. In other words, “How does the brain assign value to experiences and use that information to choose a mate?”

man standing in aviary with many finches“Defining this link is essential to understand decision making, and mate choice in female songbirds is an excellent context in which to determine how the nervous system encodes that connection,” Prather says. “We hope to use the aspects of decision making that we discover in birds to gain insight into human decision making.”

An improved understanding of decision making and social behavior will help advance a number of fields, including neuroscience, psychology and economics, Prather says.

NSF CAREER Award stipulations require the award recipient to include an educational outreach component as part of receiving the grant money. 

The research will provide unique training opportunities for four graduate students, 20 undergraduate students and five high school science teachers. They will receive mentoring from Prather and other collaborators in critical thinking and a suite of behavioral, electrophysiological, molecular and educational techniques.

As part of the outreach component, Prather will partner with high school science teachers from around the state to develop active-learning curriculum modules based on this research. All materials will be placed online to expand the impact and reach of the research beyond Wyoming.

“We want to use this research to build curriculum modules we can use in high school science classrooms and introductory biology classes, and engage students in active learning,” Prather says.

Prather plans to work with UW’s Berry Biodiversity Institute to sponsor a series of “science cafes” around the state, where the science could be discussed with the public in a relaxed and casual setting, such as in restaurants or libraries.

The CAREER Program is a NSF-wide activity that offers the NSF’s most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations. Only assistant professors without tenure are eligible. The CAREER Program is intended for faculty members who are at or near the beginning of their careers.

“It’s (award) transformative. It provides us the resources we need to ask the questions we want to ask,” Prather says. “I’ve been really interested in this research for a long time, and now we get to do it.”

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