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Are novel objects perceived as stressful? The effect of novelty on heart rate

Fischer, Clare Parker, Franco, Leor A., Romero, L. Michael
Physiology & behavior 2016 v.161 pp. 7-14
Sturnus vulgaris, birds, fearfulness, heart rate, stress response, wild animals
Neophobia, or the fear of novel objects, is a behavior that is often found in wild animals. Neophobia appears to be related to the physiological stress response because individuals with higher glucocorticoid responses to stress often are more neophobic. The relationship between the heart rate response and novelty, however, has not been tested in a wild species. We implanted heart rate transmitters in captive European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) to measure increases in heart rate as an index of the adrenomedullary stress response. Specifically, we measured heart rate in animals encountering novel objects on or near their food dishes using a system to display the novel objects while the experimenters remained outside the room, thereby minimizing the confounding effects of experimenter presence on heart rate. We analyzed three conditions: the period of adjustment to the experimental setup before any exposure to novelty, novel object trials, and no object controls (presented in a random order after 0–5 novel objects). Birds approached their food dishes faster during the adjustment period than during novel object trials. Although they demonstrated a behavioral aversion to novelty, the effect on heart rate was unexpected. Heart rate increased sharply when the food dishes were displayed. The duration of the startle response was longer during no object controls than during novel object exposure, the opposite of the anticipated result. There were no correlations between behavior and metrics of the heart rate response. Novel object exposure does not cause an increase in heart rate.