European Starlings and Climate Change

You may notice a number of new bird nesting boxes springing up across the landscape at the Outdoor Discovery Center! The Museum is participating in a research project that will help determine what mechanisms European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) use to ensure offspring survival in varying environmental conditions.  As climates become more erratic, with increasing variability in precipitation and temperature extremes, it is crucial to understand if and how species can adapt. The way in which starling mothers provide advantages to their offspring, in order to overcome environmental constraints, will be explored in this study. In varying environmental conditions, what mechanisms do organisms utilize to ensure offspring fitness and survival?

The project is being conducted by Graduate Student at Columbia University who states, "The goal of this study is to determine the extent that mothers are able to provide an epigenetic adaptive developmental advantage to offspring to overcome the constraints of poor environmental conditions, and to establish the methods by which this strategy is employed." 

Project Aims, Hypotheses, and Predictions

In varying environmental conditions, what mechanisms do organisms utilize to ensure offspring fitness and survival? The goal of this study is to determine the extent that mothers are able to provide an epigenetic adaptive developmental advantage to offspring to overcome the constraints of poor environmental conditions, and to establish the methods by which this strategy is employed.

Hypothesis 1: Mothers adaptively program offspring through the direct transfer of maternal epigenetic markers during early life (DNA methylation can be passed from mother to offspring).

Prediction: Maternal body condition, which is positively correlated with pre-breeding rainfall [5], is related to the level of DNA methylation in offspring.

Hypothesis 2: Mothers adaptively program offspring indirectly through the transmission of hormones into the egg contents.

Prediction: Levels of glucocorticoid hormones in the egg determine future offspring fitness and influence DNA methylation.

Click below to read the full project proposal.