Rapid genomic and physiological responses for social dominance

For many animals, possibly even for humans, mating success is determined by social status or dominance. A male's position in the "pecking order" - a term coined by the Norwegian Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe, who first proposed the concept of social dominance based on his work with chickens - can actually control his fertility. Social status also has other well-established, long-term physiological consequences. It can determine how big an animal grows, for example, or how it responds to stress. However, little is known about the neural mechanisms that link the social environment to the physiological changes associated with dominance.

In a paper published in the open-access journal PLoS Biology, Sabrina Burmeister, Erich Jarvis, and Russell Fernald demonstrate that subordinate male cichlid fish become dominant within minutes of an opportunity to do so, rapidly developing the bright coloration of dominant males and indulging in dominant behaviors. The authors simulated natural social upheavals by removing the dominant male an hour before daylight (cichlids rely primarily on visual cues to monitor their social position) from a social group consisting of several females, a dominant male, and a subordinate male - an approach designed to represent naturally occurring behavioral and neural responses. The authors then watched the erstwhile subordinate male for behavioral signs of dominance, and measured changes in the expression of a class of genes called immediate-early genes within the brain. The proteins encoded by these genes - which show behavior-specific expression in many animals - induce the expression of other genes in the brain that produce changes in the animal's physiology. Subordinate and dominant males whose position in the social hierarchy had not been experimentally manipulated were similarly examined.

At the moment of development of the bright coloration and behavior associated with dominant males, the expression of the immediate-early gene

Contact: Paul Ocampo
Public Library of Science

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