Lessons from a bird brain

Edgren Scholars Emily Schmidt ’24 and Professor of Biological Sciences Melissa Cordes study gene expression in European starlings, with the hope of better understanding Autism Spectrum Disorders.

By Monique Kleinhuizen '08, GS'16, content specialist

April 15, 2024 | 9:15 a.m.

Professor of Biological Sciences Melissa Cordes and Emily Schmidt ’24, 2023 Edgren Scholars

Professor of Biological Sciences Melissa Cordes and Emily Schmidt ’24, 2023 Edgren Scholars

Open a window in the spring in Minnesota, and you’ll hear a bevy of bird calls. Many birders can identify the most common species making those sounds. But it takes a seasoned ornithologist to distinguish between the calls made in May versus September, and how subtle nuances signal the calling bird’s gender, social status, and place in the mating cycle.

It takes a biology professor and student researcher to get even deeper, asking why those calls are different—and what signals in the brain motivate a bird to communicate differently based on its environment. 

Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Melissa Cordes and neuroscience major Emily Schmidt ’24 received an Edgren Scholarship in summer 2023 to study just that. They’ve been looking into the underlying gene expressions responsible for shaping communication in certain species with human-like neurological pathways. 

“Vocal communication is a critical aspect in many social interactions across vertebrate species,” Cordes explained during a Primetime presentation in the Bethel University Library in December. In humans and other species, she added, vocalizations can communicate alarm or hunger, signify group cohesion, or assert a territory. 

But—just as humans communicate differently at home than they would in a job interview—animals in the wild adjust their communication rapidly to reflect their specific situation or address a need through “open-ended learning.” While this phenomenon shapes how humans communicate, little is known about how our brains make this happen. And better understanding social cues and gene expression could shed light on the cues sometimes missed by those with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

So Cordes and Schmidt partnered with neuroscience major and 2023 C. Weldon Jones Scholar Misgana Mamo ’24 to study these trends in European starlings. A flock of these highly-invasive songbirds were introduced in Central Park in the late 1800s, and there are now millions in the United States. Starlings are one of the only animal species to learn language from an adult tutor instead of being born with innate communication instincts, so they’re often used in research to help understand the motivations and chemical triggers behind communication patterns in humans.

Cordes was among the first in the neuroscience field to utilize a process called quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) or “real-time PCR” to measure how genes are expressed in the starling brain.

“The process is getting more popular, but it’s kind of missing a baseline,” Cordes explains. “What happens normally, throughout the seasons, in these birds?” At the request of other scientists she canvassed, this study seeks to create a baseline of data—a control—so that outlying data can be better understood.

In spring 2022, Cordes spent her sabbatical gathering behavioral observations in mixed-sex groups of starlings in five aviaries on Bethel’s campus, noting their tendencies and vocalizations around courtship, dominance, and general day-to-day life. They took a sampling of birds to map the activity of neural pathways in their brains—and how that activity differed in spring-condition birds versus summer- or fall-condition birds. Their ultimate goal is to create the first large-scale data set of its kind, something that could prove invaluable in studying motivated communication.

Schmidt is a neuroscience major with chemistry and psychology minors who came across Bethel at a science open house her sophomore year of high school. Neuroscience had just become a major, and she was able to connect with Cordes, not only about her research interests, but what it was like to do research within a faith-centered environment like at Bethel. Though she didn’t know she’d be partnering directly with Cordes on original research one day, she says the idea was a draw.

“Once I found out Bethel had neuro, I decided I didn’t need to look anywhere else. I personally had never been super interested in research before, but I really enjoy doing it,” Schmidt says, highlighting the value of the Edgren program, which provides a stipend to faculty-student teams doing summer research. “I don’t know if I’ll go into research professionally, but it doesn’t scare me anymore. It’s given me confidence in my own abilities.”

Professor of Biological Sciences Melissa Cordes, C. Wheldon Jones Scholar Misgana Mamo ’24 and Edgren Scholar Emily Schmidt ’24 kicking off their research project in summer 2023

Professor of Biological Sciences Melissa Cordes, C. Wheldon Jones Scholar Misgana Mamo ’24 and Edgren Scholar Emily Schmidt ’24 kicking off their research project in summer 2023

“The Edgren program is a fantastic opportunity, especially for newer faculty, to have time devoted to research and mentoring students. It’s meant to be a partnership between faculty and students, recognizing the scholarly work that we do as being valuable and worth the time.”

— Professor of Biological Sciences Melissa Cordes

What’s next?

  • Biology research students have extracted RNA for the lateral septum and central gray brain areas, converted it to cDNA, and began qPCR, completing eleven genes between the two areas, to-date.
  • Summer- and fall-condition birds were observed and collected, and tissue is currently being processed.
  • Once all data sets are complete, the team hopes to put them together into a large data set to compare overarching gene expression between seasons.
  • They hope to continue collaboration with Cordes’ Ph.D. Advisor; Professor and Chair of Animal Behavior, Neuroscience, and Physiology Lauren Riters at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. They’ll work together on data analysis and gathering a manuscript for potential publication in scholarly journals. 
  • Misgana Mamo presented some of this research at the Winchell Undergraduate Research Symposium earlier this month in Winona, Minnesota.

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