The lab rat with feathers

By Tim Low | April 22, 2016

Otherwise known as Australia’s zebra finch. Only the great tit of Eurasia is more studied.

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Tim Low

Tim Low lives in a state of perpetual surprise at everything wild and alive. His response is to write searching books, Australian Geographic articles and this blog. His book Where Song Began (Penguin, 2014) recently became the first nature book ever to win the Australian Book Industry Award for best general non-fiction. Tim’s newest book is called The New Nature.

AN AUSTRALIAN BIRD is fast on its way to becoming the best-known bird in the world. The zebra finch has been the subject of more than 1500 research papers so far, establishing it as the world’s most studied bird after the great tit of Europe and Asia. Tits are studied mainly in the wild and ‘zebbies’ in captivity, establishing our finches as the lab rats of the bird world.

They have been enlisted in studies of almost anything – song learning, personality stability, social isolation, gene expression, Diazepam sedation, and detection of the earth’s magnetic field – in journals that span the spectrum from Ethology to the International Journal of Bifurcation and Chaos

In 2010 the zebra finch became the second bird in the world after the chicken to have its genome sequenced. Its value for the study of vocal learning and communication is soaring from this.

Zebra finch

The female zebra finch (pictured) is easily distinguishable from the male (top image) – another characteristic that makes the species useful in research. (Image: Peripitus/Wikimedia)

I would like to say that Australians lead the way in zebra finch research but that is far from the case. Of the 36 papers published in the world’s two highest impact journals – Nature and Science – not one has an author based in Australia. Some of the scientists achieving fame for their research have probably never been to Australia much less seen a zebra finch in the wild.

Model organisms

Other model organisms in research include the lab rat, bred from the Asian brown rat, the common fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) of Africa and Asia, and thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), a weed in Europe. Our zebra finch has been added to this select group mainly because, like them, it is exceptionally easy to keep and breed in research settings.

This tells of the boom-bust environment it comes from. To survive in the Australian outback it has to be tough and quick to breed when drenching rains produce a flush of seed. Translate that to captivity and you have hardy birds that breed readily whenever they have seed. Pairs produce clutches of up to eight eggs, and hatchlings mature in 70 days, which is much quicker than in most small birds.

The budgerigar is another outback bird important in global research, largely for the same reasons, though it doesn’t breed as quickly and has been employed in fewer than 600 studies so far. The tammar wallaby of southern Australia is the most important Australian mammal in research, the one most often used to understand marsupials.

Zebra finches in the news