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Horm Behav. 2009 Jan;55(1):113-20. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2008.09.002. Epub 2008 Sep 20.

Behavioral phenotypes persist after gonadal steroid manipulation in white-throated sparrows.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30033, USA.


White-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) exhibit a behavioral polymorphism that segregates with a plumage marker. Individuals with a white stripe (WS) on the crown engage in an aggressive strategy that involves more singing, whereas individuals with a tan stripe (TS) sing less and engage in more parental care. Previous work has shown that plasma levels of gonadal steroids differ between the morphs in both sexes, suggesting a hormonal mechanism for the polymorphic behavior in this species. Here, we eliminated morph differences in plasma levels of testosterone (T) in males and estradiol (E2) in females in order to test whether morph differences in behavior would be similarly eliminated. Males and females in non-breeding condition were treated with T or E2, respectively, so that plasma levels in the treated groups were high and equal between the WS and TS morphs. We found that despite hormone treatment, WS and TS birds differed with respect to singing behavior. WS males sang more in response to song playback than did TS males, and WS females exhibited more spontaneous song than TS females. We also found that WS males gave more chip calls, which are often used in contexts of territorial aggression. Overall, these results suggest that WS birds engage in more territorial vocalization, particularly song, than do TS birds, even when T or E2 levels are experimentally equalized. This behavioral difference may therefore be driven by other factors, such as steroid metabolism, receptor expression or function, or steroid-independent neurotransmitter systems.

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