Sula granti, a long-lived seabird, offers a unique opportunity to study the underlying mechanisms of physical and social maltreatment by non-parents, in nature. Non-breeding adults show a directed and intense social interest (affiliative, aggressive, and/or reproductive) in unrelated young. This is a unique behavioral quality among vertebrates, though inappropriate human adult reproductive behavior directed toward non-related pre-pubertal or under-age young is perhaps the most similar such vertebrate behavior. Sula granti maltreatment behavior is a promising new model system for early social trauma because it shares several features with human child abuse, including intergenerational transmission through a "cycle of violence", the relationship between age and vulnerability, frequency of social maltreatment episodes, and evidence for transmission of maltreatment through both early social trauma and long term neuroendocrine organizational effects. The researchers will investigate interactions between genetic polymorphisms and rearing environment that may influence intergenerational transmission of this behavior and other aspects of personality (e.g., shyness, aggression, anxiety/neuroticism). It is expected that some variants of specific genes will buffer individuals from the effects of early maltreatment, reducing the probability of displaying abusive and/or anxiety-related behavior as an adult. This research will be conducted on a wild population under natural conditions, will be the first comprehensive evaluation of the relative separate and combined predictive ability of multiple genes and gene x environment interactions, and will investigate the associations between genetics, animal behavior, and physiological response to early trauma which may be analogous between, or alternatively predate the divergence of, mammalian and avian lineages. The researchers and Avian Biology undergraduate students will use local school connections developed through the Wake Forest University International Baccalaureate Partnership to take their results into local high school biology classes to address North Carolina Educational Standard 4.05 on innate, learned, and social animal behavior.
The Nazca booby, a long-lived seabird, offers a unique opportunity to study the underlying mechanisms of physical and sexual maltreatment by non-parents, in nature. Non-breeding adults show a directed and intense social interest (affiliative, aggressive, and/or sexual) in unrelated young; the only other known instance of similar behavior is human pedophilia. Under this grant, the researchers investigated interactions between genes and the environment that may influence intergenerational transmission of this behavior. Nazca booby maltreatment behavior is a promising new model system for early social trauma, incorporating both sexual and non-sexual maltreatment of young by adults. It represents a rare, and perhaps unique, case of a wholly natural model for child abuse and the "cycle of violence." We also incorporated an outreach component that reached over 700 local high school students. Outcomes: Due to logistical constraints including a lack of available published avian genomes, we were unable to locate and amplify the specific genomic regions we had selected as candidate genes in the Nazca booby. This project laid the groundwork for a continuing effort to sequence these regions, and identify further candidate genes. It also provided a significant training opportunity for genetic laboratory techniques and bioinformatics for Co-PI J. K. Grace and other Wake Forest University graduate and undergraduate students. Co-PI J.K. Grace presented this work to Wake Forest University Avian Biology undergraduate students, with whom she worked to develop an interactive presentation using Nazca booby maltreatment behavior to address North Carolina Essential Education Standard for high school biology, Bio.3.2, "Understand how the environment, and/or the interaction of alleles, influences the expression of genetic traits," and specifically the objective Bio.3.2.3, "Explain how the environment can influence the expression of genetic traits," within "Evolution and Genetics." J. K. Grace, D. J. Anderson, the undergraduate students, and graduate student volunteers visited two local high schools to present this work in an interactive format to over 700 high school students in grades 9-12. By incorporating graduate and undergraduate student volunteers, we feel we succeeded in reinforcing the value of public outreach and teaching, especially among undergraduate students who are still determining their career path. The project also successfully integrated animal behavior, hormones, genetics, evolution, and gene by environment interactions for the high school students, who found it interesting, and helpful in bringing together a variety of topics that they had been taught as isolated units. Feedback from teachers indicated we succeeded in reinforcing scientific concepts, exemplifying the scientific method, and highlighting the ways in which scientific disciplines overlap, which will open up new career paths for the students. We have attached images of a few thank-you cards we received from the students as evidence of this project's success.