Arts & Culture / Mosaic / April 18, 2012

The rats, the bats, the birds of SMC

Those Knox students who spend most of their time in the Harvey-Umbeck Science and Mathematics building are often called “SMC Rats” after the animals they purportedly study. But even in the life sciences departments, the menagerie of animals used for study and experimentation reaches beyond just rodents.

“Well, I work on fish, dogs, birds, sometimes bats,” Associate Professor of Biology Jennifer Templeton said.

Templeton uses fish, obtained from the pet store, for biology courses in the study of territoriality. Templeton creates an environment where one fish is in a tank protecting a small flowerpot it has established as its home. She then places another fish in the tank and studies the reaction between the fish. Although the fish may fight, they do not kill each other, and when the experiment is complete, Templeton sends the fish back to the pet store.

Templeton uses shelter and owned dogs for the Biology 312 Animal Behavior course and behavioral study in senior research projects. The shelter dogs are worked with at the shelter and the owned dogs are usually worked with either at the school or in the owners’ home. The senior research focuses on the dogs’ “social learning” from humans and how much they will look or gaze at humans for help. Templeton said they study human vocal cues, and look “at how they use human social cues to find food.”

Templeton’s personal research, however, currently focuses on birds.

“Sometimes I catch them in the wild,” Templeton said. “Those are released when we’re done with them.”

At times, she will use pet store birds; in her most recent studies she has been using Zebra Finches to study “cultural transmission of predator recognition.”

Templeton recorded wild Zebra Finch calls during her sabbatical in Australia, and is working with her husband, Associate Professor of Biology Jim Mountjoy, to see if the domestic birds can recognize those wild calls and recognize a novel predator.

“[We are] using them as a model species to represent an endangered species that has been raised in captivity — because those species are often being raised in captivity — to be released into the wild, and yet they can’t recognize predators,” he said.

Mountjoy’s research focuses on how the finches choose mates and communication between the two sides of the brain.

“You just cover one eye over with a cap so they only have information from the left eye, it actually goes to the left hemisphere,” Mountjoy said.

Most of the finches are returned to the pet store, although sometimes this is not the case.

“For the Zebra Finches, unfortunately, sometimes they can’t return to the pet store because of some sort of deformity,” Templeton said.

One finch currently still living in the Biology Department has a beak that will not stop growing, so she has to keep trimming it. And a male lost a part of the top of his beak. But the Biology Department cares for them and keeps them until they die of old age.

Only in special cases do they have to euthanize the birds.

“If there’s an actual ailment the bird has, like one female, her head just started to expand … it got bad enough to where she was clearly in pain and so we put her down,” Templeton said.

Bats are used for biology labs. Using eyelash glue, Templeton sticks glowing fingernails to the bats’ wings so the students are able to see the flight pattern of the bat and even watch the bat catch insects in the flap of skin between its legs. The glue and fingernails are harmless and eventually fall off on their own.

The experiments the Neuroscience and Psychology departments perform, on the other hand, are often more invasive.

Associate Professor of Biology Esther Penick uses rat brains to study cell division. After “heavily, heavily” anesthetizing the rats, she removes the brain and examines the cell division.

Chair Professor of Psychology Heather Hoffman uses them in Conditioning and Learning where Hoffman said the goal is “correlating brain effects on behavioral effects” in areas such as drug addiction.

Penick said the drug-addicted rats are “often euthanized at the end of the study” or used as breeders.

They use the rats for non-invasive experiments as well. One such experiment is the “Morris Maze,” in which the rat is placed in a pool of water and encouraged to find the platform in the center.

One benefit of the maze, according to Hoffman is that the rats “don’t need to be food or water deprived.”

The departments do not often let students adopt the rats. Students are only permitted to take them home if they have been working with the rats and the professors are certain the rats will be cared for properly. But these are the exceptions because the department is responsible for the animals.

For all the departments, the primary concern when conducting these experiments and studies are the ethics. The department’s ethics committee, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), makes sure students and faculty adhere to basic protocol.

“Can you reduce the number? Can you anesthetize the animal? Can you use cells? There has to be some base work using animals … we have to justify that,” Hoffman said.

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