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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Emerging Science Note/Social Birds

Air Date: Week of November 3, 2006

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The spice finch is also referred to as "nutmeg mannikin" and was one of the species used in the UC/San Diego study. (Courtesy of Dave Behrens)

Scientists look to birds to help explain why some people are social creatures and others prefer to be alone.

Transcript

[SCIENCE THEME]

PERCY: Flashback to high school. Were you part of a social group, or at least did you desperately want to be? Or maybe you just preferred to be alone. Scientists at the University of California, San Diego are studying birds to better understand why certain people flock together and others prefer the life of a loner. They found the secret lies deep in our brains.

The researchers traveled to South Africa to find the perfect subjects: a group of closely related waxbills and finches that are similar in all ways but one - some species are territorial, and live in colonies of about 100, and the rest are solitary, living alone or with a monogamous mate.


The spice finch is also referred to as "nutmeg mannikin" and was one of the species used in the UC/San Diego study. (Courtesy of Dave Behrens)

They found that birds that live in groups have high concentrations of a neuron called vasotocin. When the scientists placed the birds behind a wire barrier and exposed them to species of the same sex, vasotocin levels jumped in the gregarious birds but fell in the asocial ones. The study suggests that these “sociality” neurons evolved in relation to positive and negative social situations - so some birds are better off being loners to survive in the animal kingdom.

The scientists believe vasotocin plays a similar role in humans. Though they don’t know why some of us have more neuron activity than others, they hope these findings could one day help alleviate shyness and lead to a cure for social anxiety disorder.
But they warn we are a long way from being able turn a misanthrope into a party-going socialite.

That’s this week’s note on emerging science. I’m Jennifer Percy.

 

Links

Groups And Grumps: Study Identifies 'Sociality' Neurons

 

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