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Dr. Kelly Ronald, Biology

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Animal communication involves a sender producing a signal (e.g., vocalizations) that travels through the environment before being detected by a receiver. Although we know how senders can vary in signal production, relatively little is known about how receivers process these signals. The recent increase in urbanization can further complicate receiver sensory processing as anthropogenic activities (e.g., noise pollution) affects the way birds communicate. This study aims to investigate the influence of urbanization on the auditory processing system of house sparrows (Passer domesticus). House sparrows are an ideal model because they inhabit urban areas and rely on vocal cues from conspecifics. We collected 60 birds from urban and rural sites in Holland, Michigan, and performed auditory brainstem response (ABR) tests to examine their auditory sensitivity. ABRs are generated from the auditory brainstem at the onset of a sound stimulus. We presented birds with 6 different frequencies (0.5, 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 kHz) at 9 intensity levels (from 8 dB to 72 dB in 8 dB intervals). The amplitude, latency, and threshold (the lowest intensity level at which there is still an ABR) of each waveform was analyzed. We hypothesize that urban house sparrows will have decreased auditory sensitivity to sound compared to rural birds, as urban birds are exposed to consistent anthropogenic noise. In Holland, urban areas are roughly 10 dB louder than rural areas, which has the potential to cause hearing damage. Specifically, moving from rural to urban locations, we expect to observe a decrease in amplitude and increases in latency and thresholds. Results of this study will provide information on how urbanization impacts the auditory sensory physiology of the house sparrows. This will be essential in understanding how urbanization impacts bird communication, as noise pollution may inhibit ability to communicate to potential mates or kin.


This research was supported by the Dow Scholars Foundation and the Sheldon and Marilyn Wettack Summer Research Fund.

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