How thermal challenges change gene regulation in the songbird brain and gonad: Implications for sexual selection in our changing world.


In a rapidly warming world, exposure to high temperatures may impact fitness, but the gene regulatory mechanisms that link sublethal heat to sexually selected traits are not well understood, particularly in endothermic animals. Our experiment used zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata), songbirds that experience extreme temperature fluctuations in their native Australia. We exposed captive males to an acute thermal challenge (43°C) compared with thermoneutral (35°C) and lower (27°C) temperatures. We found significantly more heat dissipation behaviours at 43°C, a temperature previously shown to reduce song production and fertility, and more heat retention behaviours at 27°C. Next, we characterized transcriptomic responses in tissues important for mating effort-the posterior telencephalon, for its role in song production, and the testis, for its role in fertility and hormone production. Differential expression of hundreds of genes in the testes, but few in the brain, suggests the brain is less responsive to extreme temperatures. Nevertheless, gene network analyses revealed that expression related to dopaminergic signalling in the brain covaried with heat dissipation behaviours, providing a mechanism by which temporary thermal challenges may alter motivational circuits for song production. In both brain and testis, we observed correlations between thermally sensitive gene networks and individual differences in thermoregulatory behaviour. Although we cannot directly relate these gene regulatory changes to mating success, our results suggest that individual variation in response to thermal challenges could impact sexually selected traits in a warming world.





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Publication Info

Lipshutz, Sara E, Clara R Howell, Aaron M Buechlein, Douglas B Rusch, Kimberly A Rosvall and Elizabeth P Derryberry (2022). How thermal challenges change gene regulation in the songbird brain and gonad: Implications for sexual selection in our changing world. Molecular ecology, 31(13). pp. 3613–3626. 10.1111/mec.16506 Retrieved from

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Sara E Lipshutz

Assistant Professor of Biology

Our research focuses on the evolution of behavior across weird and wonderfully diverse species of birds. This work bridges “muddy boots” experimental fieldwork with a variety of molecular and computational approaches in genetics, genomics, neuroscience, and endocrinology. We have several research foci:  


1. Female perspectives in biology. Cultural biases shape our predictions for how and why animals behave the way they do, and female animals have historically been neglected in biological research. We study the evolution of female competition across diverse avian species, ranging from social polyandry to monogamy in shorebirds and songbirds. Critically, hypotheses derived from studying males (i.e. testosterone focus) do not explain interspecific variation in female aggression. We use population genomic and transcriptomic data to evaluate the proximate causes and ultimate consequences of female competition.  


2. Global change biology. In the age of the Anthropocene, animals are facing evolutionary unprecedented environmental changes. Sensory pollutants like anthropogenic noise and artificial light at night can alter animal physiology, behavior, and ecology on a rapid timescale. Behavior flexibility and adaptation may lead the way in helping animals respond to novel challenges. We investigate why some individuals and species may be better prepared to face global change.  

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