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Under Pressure

Just how stress-related hormones help wild animals—as opposed to humans and lab specimens—survive is relatively unknown. Tufts University biology professor L. Michael Romero ’88’s Tempests, Poxes, Predators, and People: Stress in Wild Animals and How They Cope (Oxford University Press) represents an exciting leap forward for this field. 

What inspired you?

Essentially, stress in nature is caused by famine, predation, weather, infectious disease, and social competition. Since only the latter impacts most Western humans, I hope understanding stress in wild animals will give us insight into how stress responses evolved. For wild animals, there’s a sixth: humans. I want us to use our understanding of stress physiology in a conservation context.


Where’d you research?

A bunch of us have been in the high Arctic, up in Alaska and Greenland, trying to understand birds’ hormonal response to poor weather conditions. I’ve also spent a number of years studying marine iguanas in the Galapagos and how stress hormones help them survive famine caused by El Niño.


Favorite field stories?

I got invited by Fish and Wildlife researchers to go out onto the pack ice to count the eider migration—eiders are deep- sea-diving ducks that come into Alaska to breed. We turn around and 80 yards away was a polar bear, stalking us. Talk about stress!


How did Swarthmore shape you?
I was originally a double major in math and philosophy, but I became very good friends with Professor Greg Florant, who studied marmots. He convinced me biology was a wonderful way to go and I followed in his footsteps. We still collaborate.


What’s next for you?

Developing a better theory of stress and applying it to exploring how human-caused disruption—especially the global climate change—affects the stress responses in animals.

Recommended Reading...

L. Michael Romero ’88 recommends more books that share the spirit of Tempests, Poxes, Predators, and People: Stress in Wild Animals and How They Cope

Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping by Robert Sapolsky

It’s a neat book that takes more of a biomedical aspect while using ideas about how stress impacts wild animals, especially baboons and primates, and how that informs us about human stress and human health. /   /   /

A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboons by Robert Sapolsky

He also wrote this book, which talks about all of the research he did in the field in Africa, everything from dealing with baboons to kneeling with Masai who didn’t quite understand what he was doing. This is another wonderful, popular book. /   /   /

The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time by Jonathan Weiner

This is a little bit farther afield, but it’s a fascinating, well written book about fieldwork. It’s more in the evolution context than stress, and is written by a journalist about his interaction with these two scientists at Princeton who have gone for 30 years down to the Galapagos to measure the beak sizes of the different species of Darwin’s finches and how they’ve changed with different ecological conditions—El Niños, La Niñas, normal years—and how they show evolution is occurring as we watch.