Social interactions are critical to nearly every aspect of human health, which has become readily apparent to many after more than a year and half of lockdowns, social distancing, cancelled travel and curtailed gatherings.
“We’re social beings who crave social connections,” said Utah State University neurobiologist Sara Freeman. “Loss of this contact leads to loneliness, grief and increases our risk of mental and physical distress.”
Studying the science of social bonds among people, however, presents challenges.
“The complexity of human social cognition cannot be modeled using a single animal species,” said Freeman, assistant professor in USU’s Department of Biology. “So, it is imperative to use a comparative approach across a range of species in order to describe the biological basis of social behavior in humans and animals alike.”
To that end, Freeman is studying adult male-female pairs of coyotes (Canis latrans) housed in Millville, Utah’s USDA APHIS National Wildlife Research Center Predator Ecology and Behavior Project Field Station, along with the brains of deceased coyotes. Her research received a recent boost with support from Oak Ridge Associated Universities.
Freeman is one of 35 recipients nationally of a ORAU-awarded 2021 Ralph E. Powe Junior Faculty Enhancement Awards Program grant. She received a $5,000 seed grant, which is matched by Utah State, for a total award of $10,000.
“It surprises many people to learn coyotes are a socially monogamous species, as are all wild canid species studied to date,” she said. “This makes coyotes a valuable subject of study.”
Female coyotes rely on their mates to help with each litter. The survival of their offspring has much more chance for success with the cooperation of both parents.
“My students and I are investigating the distribution of the receptors for oxytocin, the so-called ‘love hormone,’ in the coyote brain,” Freeman said. “We’re comparing our findings with what we know about other species, including humans.”
Among the aims of the research, she says, are to assess the connectedness between brains, behavior and hormones to establish the neurobiological basis for pair bonding in a canid model.
“This work will also lay the foundation for future hormonal research I plan to pursue on coyote sociality,” Freeman said. “I hope to gain pilot data to expand this area of social behavioral neuroscience research.”
Freeman is a featured speaker during the USU College of Science’s 2021-22 Science Unwrapped “Science on the Horizon” public outreach series. She presents “From Animals to Autism: The Science of Social Bonds” Friday, Feb. 25, 2022, at 7 p.m. in the Eccles Science Learning Center Emert Auditorium (ESLC 130) on campus. Admission is free and all ages are welcome.
The Powe awards program, now in its 31st year, is named for Ralph E. Powe, who served as the ORAU councilor from Mississippi State University for 16 years. Powe participated in numerous committees and special projects during his tenure and was elected chair of ORAU’s Council of Sponsoring Institutions. He died in 1996.
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