A Primer: Behavior as a toxicology research tool

Oftentimes when we think about an organism’s health, we don’t really think about including behavior. Maybe it’s just me, but behavior was something associated with the brain, and that thing is just too complicated to think about that they really should just get their own category (which, to be fair, many research groups do separate neurobiology and behavior into their own group, which might contribute to this way of thinking). But, ever since I’ve started my dissertation work, I’ve definitely come around and seen the light – behavior is an incredibly important aspect of physiology and we should all care about it!

Sure, behavior is extremely important part of social interactions; it doesn’t take a scientist to know that. But it’s not always as obvious how behavior is related to your health. Your body comes equipped with many amazing strategies to deal with stress, but it’s your behavior that determines how much stress your body experiences. Changes in behavior are really easy ways for animals to quickly avoid stress. Think about what you’d do if you were stuck outside on a hot summer afternoon. Sure, your body can deal with that stress through all sorts of neat ways like sweating, changing your breathing and heart rate, making new, more heat-sturdy proteins, etc. Or, you could just go find some shade or go inside where it’s air conditioned. Maybe grab an ice cream cone. Your body is capable of some amazing coping mechanisms, but does that mean you have to always use them? A simple change in how you behave can save you a lot in time and energy when dealing with a stressful environment.

More than that though, lots of behaviors may seem really simple on the surface actually involve a lot more than we realize. Let’s use another example – this time imagine yourself as a small fish trying to remain uneaten (a pretty important behavior, if you ask me). The obvious thing to do when a fish senses a predator is to quickly swim away and find somewhere safe to hide out in. Not exactly rocket science. But let’s break that down into the various steps it takes to complete that action. First, you need to realize that the predator is there to begin with. You might see the predator, hear it, or maybe even smell its presence. That requires a fully functional sensory system. Your eyes, ears, nose, and touch receptors need to be on point and they need to transmit that message to your brain. Well, that’s a huge complex system right there so you better be sure your brain is working properly as well. But that’s not all, your brain has to tell your muscles which way to move, and how much to move, so your nervous system needs to be in tip top shape. Your body is also going to help you prepare for this escape by changing its hormone balance. It’s fight or flight, is not a great time to be thinking about making babies or putting on fat reserves, so your endocrine system is going to temporarily turn the dial down on things like sex hormones, growth and fat storage, and instead mobilize stored energy to make sure you have enough fuel to get away. So right there, in this little fish swimming away from a predator, you need a fully functioning sensory organ system, nervous system, endocrine system, and who knows what else – all to tell your body to just keep swimming. Those systems are some key places that a pollutant can muck it all up and cause real problems for a fish (or any animal, really). So as a toxicologist, when I see a fish that’s behaving abnormally, that is a clue that at least one of these systems is off in some way, as well as potentially which areas might have been affected.

Behavior can be complex but with that complexity comes with a wealth of potential for researchers to study. It takes a lot of work, for sure, but behavior is such an important part of an animal’s life that we really shouldn’t be leaving it out anymore. There’s not doubt, studying behavior has many challenges (and the more complex the behavior, the more challenging it becomes), but that just means we have to get creative. In future posts, I’ll be introducing you to the different ways I, and other scientists, study animal behavior and show you some really creative solutions people have come up with to tackle these complex behaviors.

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