The genetic bases of aggression and parental behavior are the focus of a recent research paper on white-throated sparrows authored by a Millersville University (MU) professor and co-authored by a Millersville alumna.
Dr. Brent Horton’s “Vasoactive intestinal peptide as a mediator of the effects of a supergene on social behavior” research paper was published by The Royal Society Proceedings B, the Society’s flagship biological research journal. Millersville alumna Christina Michael, a 2016 graduate of Millersville, co-authored the paper, along with Dr. Donna Maney and Mackenzie Prichard, professor and graduate student at Emory University. The main criteria for acceptance in the journal are that a study is novel and has broad significance to biologists.
The study by Horton and colleagues examined how the expression of the gene for vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP) in the brain correlates with differences in territorial aggression and parental behavior in free-living white-throated sparrows. The behavior is determined by a supergene on the second chromosome that contains multiple neuroendocrine genes, including VIP, which are important in regulating social behavior.
By studying white-throated sparrows, Horton and colleagues aim to increase our understanding of how genes and hormones underlie behavioral variation in all vertebrates, including humans.
The research aligns closely with Horton’s curriculum at Millersville, where he is an associate professor specializing in vertebrate ecological physiology & behavioral ecology. Horton teaches multiple courses in animal physiology and behavior, and he often incorporates his research on white-throated sparrows and other birds in course materials to bring real science to the classroom, he said. Horton also involves and mentors undergraduates in research, providing opportunities for Millersville students, as Michael (Millersville alumna Christina Michael), to conduct high-level science.
All research was carried out with the approval of the Emory University Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and with the appropriate state and federal permits for bird banding and scientific collection.