Male Birds Sing Less to Females on Antidepressants

Summary: A new study reports male songbirds sing less to females during courtship if they have been exposed to low levels of SSRI antidepressants.

Source: University of York.

During courtship male starlings sing less to females who have been fed dilute concentrations of antidepressants, according to a new study led by the University of York.

The researchers studied the birds at sewage works where birds flock to feed all year round. But the worms, maggots and flies at sewage treatment plants have been found to contain many different pharmaceuticals, including Prozac.

The study showed that dilute concentrations of Prozac similar to those measured at sewage works appeared to make female starlings less attractive to the opposite sex.

In 2016, there were 64.7 million antidepressant items prescribed in the UK. Some of these compounds are stable in the environment and break down slowly once they’ve passed through our bodies and into sewage-treatment systems.

Dr Kathryn Arnold and Sophia Whitlock, from the Environment Department at the University of York, have been studying the effects of environmental levels of fluoxetine (commonly known as Prozac) on starlings for a number of years. They have discovered changes in the behaviour of these starlings that could put birds at risk in the wild.

a song bird
Dilute concentrations of Prozac similar to those measured at sewage works appear to make female starlings less attractive to the opposite sex. image is credited to Liam Smith.

Sophia Whitlock, researcher on the project, said: “Singing is a key part of courtship for birds, used by males to court favoured females and used by females to choose the highest quality male to father their chicks. Males sang more than twice as often and as long to untreated females compared to females that had been receiving low doses of Prozac.”

Funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the study also found increased male aggression towards females receiving the dilute dose of Prozac. Instead of courting them, males were more likely to chase, peck or claw the female starlings on Prozac.

Dr Arnold said: “Here is the first evidence that low concentrations of an antidepressant can disrupt the courtship of songbirds. This is important because animals that are slow to find a mate often won’t get to breed. With many wildlife populations in decline, we have to ask whether more could be done to remove chemical contaminants like pharmaceuticals from our sewage.”

About this neuroscience research article

The results of the three year study are published in the journal Chemosphere. The study also involved researchers from the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the Animal and Plant Health Agency.

Source: Shelley Hughes – University of York
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is credited to Liam Smith.
Original Research: Open access research for “Environmentally relevant exposure to an antidepressant alters courtship behaviours in a songbird” by Sophia E. Whitlock, M. Glória PereirabRichard F.Shore, Julie Lane, and Kathryn E. Arnold in Chemosphere. Published July 20 2018.

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]University of York”Male Birds Sing Less to Females on Antidepressants.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 6 August 2018.
< bird song-9662/>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]University of York(2018, August 6). Male Birds Sing Less to Females on Antidepressants. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved August 6, 2018 from bird song-9662/[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]University of York”Male Birds Sing Less to Females on Antidepressants.” bird song-9662/ (accessed August 6, 2018).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Environmentally relevant exposure to an antidepressant alters courtship behaviours in a songbird

Pharmaceuticals in the environment are a recently identified global threat to wildlife, including birds. Like other human pharmaceuticals, the antidepressant fluoxetine (Prozac) enters the environment via sewage and has been detected at wastewater treatment plants. Birds foraging on invertebrates at these sites can be exposed to pharmaceuticals, although the implications of exposure are poorly understood. We conducted experiments to test whether chronic exposure to a maximally environmentally relevant concentration of fluoxetine (2.7 μg day−1) altered courtship behaviour and female reproductive physiology in wild-caught starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), a species commonly found foraging on invertebrates at wastewater treatment plants. When paired with a female over two days, males sang less and were more aggressive towards fluoxetine-treated females than controls. Fluoxetine-treated females were initially aggressive towards males, becoming significantly less aggressive by the second day. In contrast, control females expressed intermediate levels of aggression throughout. We found no effect of female treatment on female courtship behaviour. Female body condition, circulating testosterone and circulating oestradiol were unaffected by treatment and did not account for male preference. Our findings suggest that exposure to an antidepressant reduced female attractiveness, adding to growing evidence that environmental concentrations of pharmaceuticals can alter important traits related to individual fitness and population dynamics.

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