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Personality in the City: Relationship Between Animal Behavioral Traits And Urbanization in a Fragile, Human-impacted Desert Ecosystem

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Human-inhabited or -disturbed areas pose many unique challenges for wildlife, including increased human exposure, novel challenges, such as finding food or nesting sites in novel structures, anthropogenic noises, and novel

Human-inhabited or -disturbed areas pose many unique challenges for wildlife, including increased human exposure, novel challenges, such as finding food or nesting sites in novel structures, anthropogenic noises, and novel predators. Animals inhabiting these environments must adapt to such changes by learning to exploit new resources and avoid danger. To my knowledge no study has comprehensively assessed behavioral reactions of urban and rural populations to numerous novel environmental stimuli. I tested behavioral responses of urban, suburban, and rural house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) to novel stimuli (e.g. objects, noises, food), to presentation of a native predator model (Accipiter striatus) and a human, and to two problem-solving challenges (escaping confinement and food-finding). Although I found few population-level differences in behavioral responses to novel objects, environment, and food, I found compelling differences in how finches from different sites responded to novel noise. When played a novel sound (whale call or ship horn), urban and suburban house finches approached their food source more quickly and spent more time on it than rural birds, and urban and suburban birds were more active during the whale-noise presentation. In addition, while there were no differences in response to the native predator, rural birds showed higher levels of stress behaviors when presented with a human. When I replicated this study in juveniles, I found that exposure to humans during development more accurately predicted behavioral differences than capture site. Finally, I found that urban birds were better at solving an escape problem, whereas rural birds were better at solving a food-finding challenge. These results indicate that not all anthropogenic changes affect animal populations equally and that determining the aversive natural-history conditions and challenges of taxa may help urban ecologists better understand the direction and degree to which animals respond to human-induced rapid environmental alterations.

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  • 2018

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Investigating the influence of food on reproductive physiology and gonad growth: urbanization as a natural experiment

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For animals that experience annual cycles of gonad development, the seasonal timing (phenology) of gonad growth is a major adaptation to local environmental conditions. To optimally time seasonal gonad growth,

For animals that experience annual cycles of gonad development, the seasonal timing (phenology) of gonad growth is a major adaptation to local environmental conditions. To optimally time seasonal gonad growth, animals use environmental cues that forecast future conditions. The availability of food is one such environmental cue. Although the importance of food availability has been appreciated for decades, the physiological mechanisms underlying the modulation of seasonal gonad growth by this environmental factor remain poorly understood.

Urbanization is characterized by profound environmental changes, and urban animals must adjust to an environment vastly different from that of their non-urban conspecifics. Evidence suggests that birds adjust to urban areas by advancing the timing of seasonal breeding and gonad development, compared to their non-urban conspecifics. A leading hypothesis to account for this phenomenon is that food availability is elevated in urban areas, which improves the energetic status of urban birds and enables them to initiate gonad development earlier than their non-urban conspecifics. However, this hypothesis remains largely untested.

My dissertation dovetailed comparative studies and experimental approaches conducted in field and captive settings to examine the physiological mechanisms by which food availability modulates gonad growth and to investigate whether elevated food availability in urban areas advances the phenology of gonad growth in urban birds. My captive study demonstrated that energetic status modulates reproductive hormone secretion, but not gonad growth. By contrast, free-ranging urban and non-urban birds did not differ in energetic status or plasma levels of reproductive hormones either in years in which urban birds had advanced phenology of gonad growth or in a year that had no habitat-related disparity in seasonal gonad growth. Therefore, my dissertation provides no support for the hypothesis that urban birds begin seasonal gonad growth because they are in better energetic status and increase the secretion of reproductive hormones earlier than non-urban birds. My studies do suggest, however, that the phenology of key food items and the endocrine responsiveness of the reproductive system may contribute to habitat-related disparities in the phenology of gonad growth.

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  • 2014