(From left) Computer Science Professor Thomas Marrinan, student Tara O’Connell and Professor Sarah Heimovics look at a display of six monitors with videos of zebra finches in cages. (Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas)

Biology and Computer Science Team Up in 'Avian Soap Opera'

With the use of six wall-mounted monitors, biology and neuroscience students kept a close watch on songbirds this summer.

This "avian soap opera" is a research project taking place in the lab of Dr. Sarah Heimovics, associate professor of biology and neuroscience, aiming to understand how hormones and neurotransmitters work in the brain to regulate the maintenance of socially monogamous pair bonds using the zebra finch as a model system.

The experiment consisted of three phases. Males and females were housed separately until randomly selected pairs were made. In phase one, the researchers looked at social interactions between pairs upon first meeting with interest markers such as time spent calling, courting, maintaining close proximity (known as "clumping") and social grooming (or "allopreening"). This allowed researchers to observe and quantify the earliest stages of pair bond formation.

The researchers then sought to quantify each male’s motivation to maintain his monogamous pair bond in the face of a social challenge. Social challenge consisted of a “jealousy” test wherein subject male zebra finches were separated from their pair mates and then subsequently viewed their partner near a bachelor male through a wire partition for 20 minutes. In this phase, researchers analyzed mate guarding, or the "jealous" behavior in birds. The wire partition allows these chemicals to activate in the male bird's brain so its brain tissue can be later collected for analysis, seeing how the behavior from the second phase affected behavior in the third phase.

"As a taxonomic group, birds are considered the most monogamous species on the planet ... We're interested in trying to understand what is the neurobiological basis for individual variation in the motivation to maintain monogamous bonds." said Heimovics.

The Computer Science Department set up a wall of monitors so that biology student Tara O'Connell could analyze videos of multiple bird pairs at once. The added monitors were able to speed up the point sampling, taking out dozens of hours of work. "It's cut the amount of time I've needed by so much. It's been going well so far." said O'Connell.

Dr. Tommy Marrinan, associate professor of computer and information science, built the tile display. Originally created for data visualization and image rendering, it was made available for the summer research project. In previous works, Marrinan used the display in collaboration for large-scale virtual reality projects and ultra high-resolution image streaming.

The avian research project was completed in August, in thanks to this collaboration. "Having a way to have one observer do all of it and have that level of internal consistency is invaluable to my research," said Heimovics.