ABS 2022
A new auditory-dependent operant task with social reinforcement for songbirds
Matheus Macedo-Lima1, Marcela Fernandez-Vargas2, Luke Remage-Healey3. 1University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, United States; 2Colorado College, Colorado Springs, Colorado, United States; 3University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts, United States

Imposed social isolation is a known stressor for social animals and alters hormone levels, genes, brain, and behavior. Songbirds are valuable models for understanding vocal learning, of which zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) – highly social, gregarious songbirds – have been widely employed in neuroscience research. However, many previous behavioral studies with zebra finches have required social isolation, introducing potential confounds. Thus, we devised an operant behavioral method that leverages the social gregariousness of zebra finches to motivate behavior. Using adult zebra finches of both sexes, we show that visual social reinforcement is a strong motivational drive to engage in operant behavior and can even be leveraged to study auditory learning and discrimination. Motivation to gain social reinforcement was higher when engaging with a familiar rather than with a novel individual. Zebra finches remained motivated in an auditory learning challenge and successfully developed discrimination ability towards birdsong or pure tones. Thus, our tool provides an alternative to tasks using food reinforcement and could be applied to a variety of highly social species.