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Horm Behav. 2010 Jul;58(2):230-40. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2010.03.011. Epub 2010 Mar 18.

Behavioral and physiological plasticity: rapid changes during social ascent in an African cichlid fish.

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Biology Department, Stanford University, 371 Serra Mall, Stanford, CA 94305, USA.


In many vertebrates, reproduction is regulated by social interactions in which dominant males control access to females and food. Subordinate males that displace dominant individuals must rapidly adopt behavioral and physiological traits of the higher rank to gain reproductive success. To understand the process of phenotypic plasticity during social ascent, we analyzed the temporal expression pattern of dominance behaviors and circulating androgen levels when socially-suppressed males of an African cichlid fish Astatotilapia burtoni ascended in status. These experiments tested a prediction of the 'challenge hypothesis' that, during periods of social instability, male androgen levels are higher than during socially stable times. We found that socially and reproductively suppressed males perform territorial and reproductive behaviors within minutes of an opportunity to ascend in status, and that animals switch from initial expression of territorial behaviors to more reproductive behaviors during territory establishment. Following this rapid response, social stability may be achieved within 1-3 days of social ascent. Consistent with predictions of the 'challenge hypothesis', circulating 11-ketotestosterone (11-KT) levels were elevated within 30 min following social opportunity, coincident with increased aggressive behavior. However, territorial behaviors and serum 11-KT levels were then dissociated by 72h after social ascent, suggesting either rapid social stability and/or increased physiological potential for androgen production. This behavioral and physiological plasticity in male A. burtoni suggests that perception of social opportunity triggers a suite of quick changes to facilitate rapid transition towards reproductive success, and reveals important features of social ascent not previously recognized.

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