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Study reveals insights into how animals adapt between seasons
The study of sheep reveals how the brain changes in response to daylight hours to adapt to the changing conditions.

Genetic 'flip-flop' timer key to functions such as fertility, researchers conclude.

A new study led by the Universities of Edinburgh and Manchester has revealed insights into how how animals adapt between seasons.

Published in the journal Nature Communications, the study reveals how a biological switch helps animals make changes that are key to their survival, such as adjusting body temperature and growing a warm, winter coat.

The study of sheep shows how the brain changes in response to daylight hours to enable animals to adapt to the changing conditions. Researchers say that it could also help explain seasonal adaptions in other species, such as mammals, birds and reptiles.

“Fluctuations in hormones and behaviour are part of a delicate biological orchestra that is crucial to life,” explained Professor Simone Meddle, who co-led the research from the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute. “Many animals depend on seasonal changes in their biology to survive and our findings are a crucial part of the puzzle to understand the underlying processes.”

Circadian rhythms – the 24 hour cycles that govern physical, mental and behavioural changes – alter during the course of a day and are influenced by genetics. Comparable rhythms also occur seasonally, but until this study it was not understood how genes play a role in the biological changes that fluctuate between summer and winter.

In the study, researchers studied the pituitary gland in sheep experiencing short or long lengths of day. They analysed brain tissue for gene activity across time, which enabled them to see how the biological processes respond to different day lengths.

The team found that one of two possible biological mechanisms is activated within the pituitary gland depending on whether the day is long or short.

When nights are long in summer, the brain generates hormones that cause a deluge of genetic activity leading to biological characteristics associated with summer. In winter, however, the switch is flipped and night time hormones are released for longer, triggering biological processes linked to this season.

The study concludes that, in the sheep brain, both processes involve a circadian gene known as BMAL2 – a gene that is found in many animals, but whose role in the seasonal clock was previously unknown.

“The genetic ‘flip-flop’ timer we have identified is key to functions such as fertility as sheep transition between winter and summer,” said Professor Andrew Loudon, who co-led the study from the University of Manchester. “We speculate that this genetic timer is likely to be fundamental to yearly changes in many species.” 

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Avian flu outbreak at RSPB Minsmere

News Story 1
 RSPB Minsmere nature reserve in Suffolk has confirmed an outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza on its site. The coastal nature reserve has seen an increase in dead birds recently, and has said that it is 'extremely concerned' about the potential impacts on bird populations, with 2021 and 2022 seeing the largest ever outbreak in the UK.

In a statement, RSPB said: "We appreciate that it is distressing, for both visitors and staff, to see dead or dying birds at our site but we ask that if visitors see any dead or unwell birds, they do not touch or go near them and that they report it to us at our Visitor Centre during its opening hours, or by emailing us on minsmere@rspb.org.uk outside of these times."  

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Moredun Foundation Award opens for applications

The 2022-2023 Moredun Foundation Award (MFA) is now open for members, with up to £2,000 available for successful applicants.

The MFA honours the contribution that education, teamwork, life experience, and travel have made to the understanding of cattle health and welfare. Through its charitable endeavours, Moredun offers its members the opportunity to pursue projects that support personal development.

The prize is open to a wide range of project applications, including those that include producing educational tools, conducting a small research project, or studying farming methods in other nations. For more information and to apply, visit moredun.org.uk