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PLoS One. 2013 May 1;8(5):e63239. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0063239. Print 2013.

Social brains in context: lesions targeted to the song control system in female cowbirds affect their social network.

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Department of Neuroscience, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States of America.


Social experiences can organize physiological, neural, and reproductive function, but there are few experimental preparations that allow one to study the effect individuals have in structuring their social environment. We examined the connections between mechanisms underlying individual behavior and social dynamics in flocks of brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater). We conducted targeted inactivations of the neural song control system in female subjects. Playback tests revealed that the lesions affected females' song preferences: lesioned females were no longer selective for high quality conspecific song. Instead, they reacted to all cowbird songs vigorously. When lesioned females were introduced into mixed-sex captive flocks, they were less likely to form strong pair-bonds, and they no longer showed preferences for dominant males. This in turn created a cascade of effects through the groups. Social network analyses showed that the introduction of the lesioned females created instabilities in the social structure: males in the groups changed their dominance status and their courtship patterns, and even the competitive behavior of other female group-mates was affected. These results reveal that inactivation of the song control system in female cowbirds not only affects individual behavior, but also exerts widespread effects on the stability of the entire social system.

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