Moore and his colleagues looked at two populations of the rufous-collared sparrow only 25 km apart. The two populations are at the same latitude but are on the east and west slopes of the Andes, which have very different climate patterns. "At the time of year when birds in the Papallacta population were breeding (August to September), birds in Pintag were in nonbreeding state," the researchers wrote in The Journal of Neuroscience ("Plasticity of the Avian Song Control System in Response to Localized Environmental Cues in an Equatorial Songbird"). "Correspondingly, the song control nuclei were fully grown in the breeding Papallacta population when they were regressed in the nonbreeding Pintag population. Singing behavior also changed seasonally in both populations.
"Our observations of seasonal brain plasticity in these tropical birds demonstrate that the vertebrate brain is extremely flexible and sensitive to diverse environmental cues that can time seasonal reproductive physiology and behavior," they wrote. While it is not yet known what environmental cues signal breeding time, Moore hypothesizes that it could be rainfall, temperature, or food availability -- or all these cues.
Human beings are contributing to global warming, which affects factors such as temperature and rainfall, and thus food availability, but does not affect the seasonal day-length changes of higher latitudes. Therefore, Moore said, global warming could change the brain functions of tropical birds and cause problems with the timing of their mating seasons. "We're not going to change day length," he said. "We can change weather patterns. Studies show changes in the timing of breeding and migration in birds." Global warming could be the reason, he said, and, if the brain is truly sensitive to environmental cues, the changes due to global warming could have "effects we haven't thought of before."