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Planet Earth

Need the Time? Ask a Rooster

InkfishBy Elizabeth PrestonMarch 19, 2013 11:02 PM

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"The connection with the sun coming up is a misconception," asserts an article in the rural lifestyle magazine Grit. "Roosters crow all the time." Some roosters in Japan would like to loudly disagree. They've shown scientists that their crowing has everything to do with what time of day it is—something they don't even need the sun to know.

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Tsuyoshi Shimmura and Takashi Yoshimura, both of Nagoya University in Japan, investigated whether a rooster's crowing is tied to its circadian clock. That is, does the bird's internal sense of night and day determine when it's noisiest? Or do roosters crow at random hours—"morning, noon and night, not to mention afternoon, evening and the parts of the day that don’t have names," according to a disgruntled neighbor-to-roosters quoted in the Grit story?

Like any scientists studying how animals follow the sun's rhythms, the researchers began by shutting their subjects indoors. In a controlled environment, they kept the roosters on a strict schedule of 12 hours in the light and 12 hours in the dark.

Recordings showed that the roosters did not crow at random. A sudden burst of crowing came two hours before the artificial dawn, and the birds gave another "cock-a-doodle-doo" immediately after the lights came on. (Though in their country, the authors point out, it's "ko-ke-kok-koh.")

Then the scientists turned the lights out entirely, keeping the birds in a permanent night. The roosters at first continued to follow crowing cycles of roughly 24 hours, with only their internal clocks keeping them on schedule. Over the course of two lightless weeks, this rhythm gradually wound down.

In the barnyard, though roosters need their circadian alarm clocks for any pre-dawn crows, they can rely on other cues to trigger their crowing at sunrise—say, the sun. So Shimmura and Yoshimura next checked whether light itself causes crowing.

Starting with roosters that were living in permanent night, they tried exposing the birds to a little bit of light at the dawn hour. A few of the roosters crowed. When the researchers used brighter and brighter light, more and more of the birds crowed in response, as if recognizing the sun. A sound recording of other roosters crowing also worked to set their birds off.

Yet just flipping on the lights wasn't enough to make a benighted bird start crowing. When the light and sound signals came at "dawn," the roosters readily responded. When researchers used the same signals later in the "day," their birds didn't respond as strongly. And when they tried the signals at "night," the roosters didn't crow at all.

Even though they were living in permanent dark, roosters weren't fooled by seeing a fake sun at any old time. To get them crowing in earnest, the signals of sunrise had to come at the same time that the birds' bodily alarm clocks rang.

Roosters seem to be expert timekeepers. This knowledge, though, may not make come as much consolation to their neighbors.

Shimmura, T., & Yoshimura, T. (2013). Circadian clock determines the timing of rooster crowing Current Biology, 23 (6) DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.02.015

Image: by -JvL- (Flickr)

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