Behavioural and physiological responses of birds to environmentally relevant concentrations of an antidepressant

Tom G. Bean, Alistair B A Boxall, Julie Lane, Katherine A. Herborn, Stéphane Pietravalle, Kathryn E. Arnold*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Many wildlife species forage on sewage-contaminated food, for example, at wastewater treatment plants and on fields fertilized with sewage sludge. The resultant exposure to human pharmaceuticals remains poorly studied for terrestrial species. On the basis of predicted exposure levels in the wild, we administered the common antidepressant fluoxetine (FLUOX) or control treatment via prey to wild-caught starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) for 22 weeks over winter. To investigate responses to fluoxetine, birds were moved from their group aviaries into individual cages for 2 days. Boldness, exploration and activity levels showed no treatment effects but controls and FLUOX birds habituated differently to isolation in terms of the concentration of corticosterone (CORT) metabolites in faeces. The controls that excreted higher concentrations of CORT metabolites on day 1 lost more body mass by day 2 of isolation than those which excreted lower levels of CORT metabolites. CORT metabolites and mass loss were unrelated in FLUOX birds. When we investigated the movements of birds in their group aviaries, we found the controls made a higher frequency of visits to food trays than FLUOX birds around the important foraging periods of sunrise and sunset, as is optimal for wintering birds. Although individual variability makes interpreting the sub-lethal endpoints measured challenging, our data suggest that fluoxetine at environmentally relevant concentrations can significantly alter behaviour and physiology.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20130575
JournalPhilosophical Transactions Of The Royal Society Of London Series B - Biological Sciences
Issue number1656
Publication statusPublished - 19 Nov 2014


  • Corticosterone
  • Fluoxetine
  • Foraging behaviour
  • Personality traits
  • Prozac

Cite this