How Baby Quails Are Helping Baby Humans Before Returning To The Wild

Jan 29, 2013

Robert Lickliter, is the director of graduate studies in the Psychology Department at FIU’s College of Arts & Sciences. He leads a research team that studies quail embryos for clues about pre-term baby development.
Credit Patricia Sagastume

One day more than seven years ago, Debbie Brunson  woke up to an unfamiliar sound. She and her husband were camping on their land in the Redlands farming area. The sound she heard was that of an adult male Bob White quail.

It shocked her because she hadn't heard that bird call for over a decade.

"In Florida, there use to be quail everywhere.  But because of farming and pesticides and buildings,  they’ve disappeared," Brunson said.

That's when she decided she wanted to bring back the quail. But how would she do it? Buying eggs or full-grown quails would be too expensive.

Then, about six months later, a flyer at a feed store caught her eye. A university research  study needed someone to adopt baby quail chicks.

Since then, Brunson has adopted and nursed thousands of quails and released them into the wild.  These  liberated chicks  started out their lives in a laboratory. Researchers had carefully observed the quail embryos while still developing in the egg. 

"They can see, hear, walk and vocalize. This is really important for the work we do because we’re interested in the effects of prenatal experience on postnatal development," said Robert Lickliter, a developmental psychologist at Florida International University. He works with quail  embryos up until a week after they hatch.  

In the lab, the quail eggs are exposed to intermittent patterns of light through their translucent shells. The embryos also hear sounds that mimic a mother quail's chirp. Lickliter and the FIU researchers were surprised by their findings.

"For example, if we give them unusual early visual experience, we found they are less likely to be good at learning a particular female’s vocalization. Instead, what they’re doing is showing increased visual abilities but at the cost of another sensory system," he said. 

After decades of research his team and other labs across the country have made a difference in neonatal units. Now preemie babies are not bombarded with round-the-clock bright lights in their cribs or loud machine noises.  

"The (nurses) put eye patches on newborns or instigate what we call kangaroo care where the mother or father can actually hold and move around and touch that high-risk preterm infant. This gives experiences that promote normal, optimal development," said Lickliter.

A  collaborative project with the Harvard Medical School will use incubators equipped with special mattresses. Preemie babies will hear the sound of a mother’s heart beat and feel a vibration that mimics their mother’s womb.  

But in the meantime, Bronson will continue caring and releasing  the dozens of quail chicks every week, like she has done for the past seven years. 

"That's one  of the reasons we're really excited to be giving our chicks away so that  hopefully they will build up their numbers again," said Lickliter.