Effects of acoustic stimulation on behavioural flexibility: the domestic chick as a model for early social behaviour

Maria Diez Leon (primary)
Pathobiology and Population Sciences
Royal Veterinary College, University of London
Elisabetta Versace (secondary)
School of Biological and Chemical Sciences
Queen Mary, University of London


The ability to adapt behavior to different social contexts is mediated by sensitivity to vocal stimuli. Since behavioural flexibility is compromised in neurodevelopmental disorders (e.g. autism), it is important to identify early life factors affecting it. Using a virtual reality environment controlled by machine learning, we will identify the vocal stimuli able to enhance behavioural flexibility in the domestic chicks (Gallus gallus). This tractable model is the new frontier for the study of neurodevelopmental disorders, and has a pivotal role in farming. Hence, the implications of this project span from fundamental neuroscience to animal welfare and human-machine interactions.


Abeyesinghe, S. M., Drewe, J. A., Asher, L., Wathes, C. M. & Collins, L. M. 2013. Do hens have friends? Applied Animal Behaviour Science 143, 61-66.
Díez-León, M., Bursian, S., Napolitano, A., Palme, R., Galicia, D., Mason, G. 2016. Environmentally enriching American mink (Neovison vison) increases lymphoid organ weight and skeletal symmetry, and reveals differences between two sub-types of stereotypic behaviour. Applied Animal Behaviour Science: 177: 59-69.

Díez-León, M., Bowman, J., Bursian, S., Filion, H., Galicia, D., Kanefsky, J., Napolitano, A., Palme, R., Schulte-Hostedde, A., Scribner, K., Mason, G. 2013. Captive rearing environments that induce stereotypies compromise copulatory performance in a model carnivore, the American mink (Neovison vison). PLoS ONE 8: e80494
Edgar, J., Held, S., Jones, C., & Troisi, C. 2016. Influences of maternal care on chicken welfare. Animals, 6(1), 2.
Mathis, A. et al. 2018. DeepLabCut: markerless pose estimation of user-defined body parts with deep learning. Nat. Neurosci. 21, 1281–1290.

O’Connor, E. A., Parker, M. O., Davey, E. L., Grist, H., Owen, R. C., Szladovits, B., Demmers, T. G., Wathes, C. M. & Abeyesinghe, S. M. 2011. The effect of low light and high noise on behavioural activity, physiological indicators of stress and production in laying hens. British Poultry Science 52: 666-674.

Stowell, D., Wood, M. D., Pamuła, H., Stylianou, Y. & Glotin, H. 2019. Automatic acoustic detection of birds through deep learning: The first Bird Audio Detection challenge. Methods Ecol. Evol. 10, 368–380.

Versace, E., Spierings, M. J., Caffini, M., ten Cate, C. & Vallortigara, G. 2017. Spontaneous generalization of abstract multimodal patterns in young domestic chicks. Anim. Cogn. 20, 521–529.

Versace, E., Fracasso, I., Baldan, G., Dalle Zotte, A., and Vallortigara, G. 2017. Newborn chicks show inherited variability in early social predispositions for hen-like stimuli. Sci. Rep. 7, 40296.

Animal disease, health and welfare
Area of Biology
Techniques & Approaches
EngineeringImage ProcessingMathematics / Statistics