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Proc Biol Sci. 2009 Jun 7;276(1664):2085-92. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2009.0026. Epub 2009 Mar 11.

Habitat-dependent and -independent plastic responses to social environment in the nine-spined stickleback (Pungitius pungitius) brain.

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  • 1Ecological Genetic Research Unit, Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Helsinki, PO Box 65, 00014 Helsinki, Finland. abigel.gonda@helsinki.fi


The influence of environmental complexity on brain development has been demonstrated in a number of taxa, but the potential influence of social environment on neural architecture remains largely unexplored. We investigated experimentally the influence of social environment on the development of different brain parts in geographically and genetically isolated and ecologically divergent populations of nine-spined sticklebacks (Pungitius pungitius). Fish from two marine and two pond populations were reared in the laboratory from eggs to adulthood either individually or in groups. Group-reared pond fish developed relatively smaller brains than those reared individually, but no such difference was found in marine fish. Group-reared fish from both pond and marine populations developed larger tecta optica and smaller bulbi olfactorii than individually reared fish. The fact that the social environment effect on brain size differed between marine and pond origin fish is in agreement with the previous research, showing that pond fish pay a high developmental cost from grouping while marine fish do not. Our results demonstrate that social environment has strong effects on the development of the stickleback brain, and on the brain's sensory neural centres in particular. The potential adaptive significance of the observed brain-size plasticity is discussed.

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