Date: November 18, 2015
Source: University of Exeter
Getting help with baby care could keep families healthier and extend their lives, according to a new study into bird behaviour.
Research into weaver birds in South Africa, carried out at the University of Exeter and published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, found that a heavy breeding workload led to increased free radical damage to cells, which can be associated with aging and ill health. However, where birds were in larger groups and the workload was shared, no increase in cell damage was found.
The team studied cooperative white-browed sparrow weaver birds in the Kalahari Desert during their breeding season and compared groups of birds that were not breeding with others that were raising chicks.
In the three weeks after hatching, adult birds work feverishly to bring chicks food and as a result they grow to 40 times their original size. Meanwhile, non-breeding birds live a life of relative leisure, with no hungry mouths to feed.
"We investigated oxidative stress, which occurs when free-radicals cause damage to cells. Antioxidants usually prevent this damage, but during hard work, free-radicals can overwhelm antioxidant protection," said lead researcher Dominic Cram, who is now based at the University of Cambridge.
"We found that the birds that were feeding nestlings often had weaker antioxidant defences and suffered from oxidative stress. However, in large groups where many birds assist with nestling care, the birds showed stronger antioxidants and lower free radical damage. So in larger groups many hands appear to have made light work."