The ecology of the Zebra Finch makes it a great laboratory model but an outlier amongst passerine birds

Simon Griffith*, Riccardo Ton, Laura L. Hurley, Callum McDiarmid, Hector Pacheco-Fuentes

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

    22 Citations (Scopus)
    69 Downloads (Pure)


    Simple Summary: The Zebra Finch (Taeniopygia guttata) is the focus of more work in the laboratory than any other non-production bird. It has been so widely used because of key physiological, behavioural and life history characteristics. The species can be maintained and bred easily on a very poor diet and is the fastest maturing bird in the world. Here, we argue that whilst these characteristics do indeed make it an excellent species for conducting captive experiments in a controlled environment, they also make it an outlier amongst birds. Therefore, in many research fields, and particularly those focused on behaviour and life history evolution, great care needs to be taken in using the species appropriately and interpreting the results. The Zebra Finch is unlikely to be a good ‘model’ of general bird life history or behaviour, and is certainly very different from many of the well-studied birds in the northern hemisphere. Our paper should help to direct future research on the Zebra Finch in the wild and laboratory.

    Abstract: Zebra Finches have become the most widely researched bird species outside of those used in agricultural production. Their adoption as the avian model of choice is largely down to a number of characteristics that make them easy to obtain and use in captivity. The main point of our paper is that the very characteristics that make the Zebra Finch a highly amenable laboratory model species mean that it is by definition different from many other passerine birds, and therefore not a good general model for many research areas. The Zebra Finch is likely to be particularly resilient to the effects of stress early in life, and is likely to show great flexibility in dealing with a wide variety of conditions later in life. Whilst it is tempting for researchers to turn to species such as the Zebra Finch, that can be the focus of manipulative work in the laboratory, we caution that the findings of such studies may confound our understanding of general avian biology. The Zebra Finch will remain an excellent species for laboratory work, and our paper should help to direct and interpret future work in the laboratory and the field.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)60-76
    Number of pages17
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - Mar 2021

    Bibliographical note

    Copyright the Author(s) 2021. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


    • model system
    • Taeniopygia guttata
    • evolutionary ecology
    • early developmental effects
    • life history
    • dietary manipulation


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