Lab and field experiments: Are they the same animal?

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Abstract

To advance our understanding of biological processes we often plan our experiments based on published data. This can be confusing though, as data from experiments performed in a laboratory environment are sometimes different from, or completely opposite to, findings from similar experiments performed in the “real world”. In this mini-review, we discuss instances where results from laboratory experiments differ as a result of laboratory housing conditions, and where they differ from results gathered in the field environment. Experiments involving endocrinology and behavior appear to be particularly susceptible to influence from the environment in which they are performed.

As such, we have attempted to promote discussion of the influence of housing environment on the reproductive axis, circadian biology and behavior, immune function, stress biology, neuroplasticity and photoperiodism. For example, why should a rodent species be diurnal in one housing environment yet nocturnal in another? Are data that are gathered from experiments in the laboratory applicable to the field environment, and vice-versa? We hope not only to highlight the need for experiments in both lab and field when looking at complex biological systems, but also to promote frank discussion of discordant data. Perhaps, just as study of individual variation has been gaining momentum in recent years, data from variation between experimental arenas can provide us with novel lines of research.

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