Meet Jessica Burkhart

Jessica Burkhart is a PhD student working for the Lion Research Center at the University of Minnesota. Her research investigates the neurological mechanisms modulating social behavior in large cats. This is a unique opportunity because there is such a large spectrum of behavior inĀ Panthera. She seeks to identify differences in densities and distributions of neuropeptides, such as oxytocin and dopamine, in the social African lion and its asocial cousins, the leopard, tiger, and even the cheetah. Eventually, she will characterize these social neural networks across social and asocial carnivores. Currently, I am analyzing data from behavioral studies where I administered oxytocin intranasally to lions, leopards, and cheetahs during three different types of social interactions. These behavioral analyses will be correlated with brain morphology and distribution of receptors and will provide insight into solitary and affiliative behaviors. Jessica loves learning about the brain, and working with large cats, and she is passionate about this work as she believes that the knowledge of these highly preserved social networks in the mammalian brain will allow us to better understand social disorders such as autism and depression. Also, as we understand how social information is processed differently in the brains of these endangered large cats, it will help wildlife reserves design the most effective, sustainable introduction and management programs, contributing to conservation.

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