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Scientists use thermal imagine to see how the blue tit adapts itself to environmental changes

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Posted February 5, 2018

Environment in the wild is changing wildly. This is attributed to human activity, but even natural causes and disasters are altering habitats of wild animals. Up until now scientists had to capture some examples to say how they are coping with these changes. However, now scientists from the University of Glasgow have testes a new method, involving thermal imaging.

Blue tits respond to stress and environmental changes by decreasing the surface temperature of their skin. Image credit: Francis C. Franklin via Wikimedia(CC BY-SA 3.0)

Currently you would have to capture the animal to see how it is adapting to the environmental changes. This, of course, is not the best way, because scientific activity is very stressful for the animal and it sometimes cannot return to the wild very easily. Scientists capture animals simply to measure their body qualities, indicating stress or adaptation. Now a thermal imaging technique may replace many of these unnecessary captures. Scientists tested this new method on a population of a small songbird – the blue tit. Thermal images can reveal the physiological adjustments the bird makes to preserve energy or deal with environmental stressors.

Scientists noticed that the skin patch around the eyes in blue tits are cooler when the bird is poorer condition or has higher levels of stress hormones in their bloodstream. This is because animals need to save energy when the winter is harsh or when there is simply not enough food in the environment. Animals save energy by reducing their temperature in many cases. And then there is the stress response mechanism, which changes the blood flow in a way that the most vital parts of the body would have the best blood supply possible. At the same time this increases the core temperature and decreases the temperature of the skin. Both these effects produce the same results in the thermal imaging camera.

These findings are important, because they help explaining why animals act the way they do and how they may respond to environmental challenges of the future. Dr Paul Jerem, co-author of the study, said: “Changes in the physiological processes we detected using thermal imaging are generally the first response to environmental challenges. So being able to easily measure them in wild animals means we might be able to identify populations at risk before any decline takes place – a primary goal of conservation”. And, of course, the biggest strength of this method is that the animal does not have to be captured and handled.

Thermal imaging may allow researching a bigger number of individual animals in a shorter period of time. This is a positive change. However, it is likely not possible to research environmental response mechanisms without capturing at least some animals.

 

Source: University of Glasgow

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