Cooperative behavior is widespread among animals, yet the neural mechanisms have not been studied in detail. We examined cooperative territory defense behavior and associated neural activity in candidate forebrain regions in the cichlid fish, Astatotilapia burtoni. We find that a territorial male neighbor will engage in territory defense dependent on the perceived threat of the intruder. The resident male, on the other hand, engages in defense based on the size and behavior of his partner, the neighbor. In the neighbor, we find that an index of engagement correlates with neural activity in the putative homolog of the mammalian basolateral amygdala and in the preoptic area, as well as in preoptic dopaminergic neurons. In the resident, neighbor behavior is correlated with neural activity in the homolog of the mammalian hippocampus. Overall, we find distinct neural activity patterns between the neighbor and the resident, suggesting that an individual perceives and processes an intruder challenge differently during cooperative territory defense depending on its own behavioral role.
Recent progress in animal behavior research, based on the insight that proximate mechanisms both shape and constrain behavioral responses to natural and sexual selection, has reinforced the importance of knowing the neuromolecular basis of social behavior for understanding its evolution. Here, we review the current state of knowledge of the neural substrates of vertebrate social behavior, with an emphasis on the neuroendocrine and neurochemical pathways involved. Using an integrative perspective, we then discuss the evolution of these mechanisms and highlight several challenges that have hampered progress in this area. Finally, we provide a road map for an integrative evolutionary neuroethology.
The molecular mechanisms underlying phenotypic plasticity are not well understood. Identifying mechanisms underlying alternative reproductive tactics (ARTs) in species for which the behavioural and fitness consequences of this variation are well characterized provides an opportunity to integrate evolutionary and mechanistic understanding of the maintenance of variation within populations. In the ocellated wrasse Symphodus ocellatus, the behavioural phenotypes of three distinct male morphs (sneakers, satellites and nesting males), which arise from a single genome, have been thoroughly characterized. To determine the neuroendocrine and genomic mechanisms associated with discrete phenotypic variation and ARTs in S. ocellatus in their natural environment, we constructed a whole-brain de novo transcriptome and compared global patterns of gene expression between sexes and male morphs. Next, we quantified circulating cortisol and 11-ketotestosterone (11-kt), mediators of male reproductive behaviours, as well as stress and gonadal steroid hormone receptor expression in the preoptic area, ventral subpallial division of the telencephalon and dorsolateral telencephalon, critical brain regions for social and reproductive behaviours. We found higher levels of 11-kt in nesting males and higher levels of cortisol in sneaker males relative to other male morphs and females. We also identified distinct patterns of brain region-specific hormone receptor expression between males such that most hormone receptors are more highly expressed in satellites and nesting males relative to sneakers and females. Our results establish the neuroendocrine and molecular mechanisms that underlie ARTs in the wild and provide a foundation for experimentally testing hypotheses about the relationship between neuromolecular processes and reproductive success.
Extended phenotypes offer a unique opportunity to experimentally manipulate and identify sources of selection acting on traits under natural conditions. The social cichlid fish Neolamprologus multifasciatus builds nests by digging up aquatic snail shells, creating an extended sexual phenotype that is highly amenable to experimental manipulation through addition of extra shells. Here, we find sources of both positive sexual selection and opposing natural selection acting on this trait; augmenting shell nests increases access to mates, but also increases social aggression and predation risk. Increasing the attractiveness of one male also changed social interactions throughout the social network and altered the entire community structure. Manipulated males produced and received more displays from neighbouring females, who also joined augmented male territories at higher rates than unmanipulated groups. However, males in more attractive territories received more aggression from neighbouring males, potentially as a form of social policing. We also detected a significant ecological cost of the ‘over-extended' phenotype; heterospecific predators usurped augmented nests at higher rates, using them as breeding sites and displacing residents. Using these natural experiments, we find that both social and ecological interactions generate clear sources of selection mediating the expression of an extended phenotype in the wild.
We examine the complex evolution of animal nervous systems and discuss the ramifications of this complexity for inferring the nature of early animals. Although reconstructing the origins of nervous systems remains a central challenge in biology, and the phenotypic complexity of early animals remains controversial, a compelling picture is emerging. We now know that the nervous system and other key animal innovations contain a large degree of homoplasy, at least on the molecular level. Conflicting hypotheses about early nervous system evolution are due primarily to differences in the interpretation of this homoplasy. We highlight the need for explicit discussion of assumptions and discuss the limitations of current approaches for inferring ancient phenotypic states.
In many species, under varying ecological conditions, social interactions among individuals result in the formation of dominance hierarchies. Despite general similarities, there are robust differences among dominance hierarchies across species, populations, environments, life stages, sexes, and individuals. Understanding the proximate mechanisms underlying the variation is an important step toward understanding the evolution of social behavior. However, physiological changes associated with dominance, such as gonadal maturation and somatic growth, often complicate efforts to identify the specific underlying mechanisms. Traditional gene expression analyses are useful for generating candidate gene lists, but are biased by choice of significance cut-offs and difficult to use for between-study comparisons. In contrast, complementary analysis tools allow one to both test a priori hypotheses and generate new hypotheses. Here we employ a meta-analysis of high-throughput expression profiling experiments to investigate the gene expression patterns that underlie mechanisms and evolution of behavioral social phenotypes. Specifically, we use a collection of datasets on social dominance in fish across social contexts, sex, and species. Using experimental manipulation to produce female dominance hierarchies in the cichlid Astatotilapia burtoni, heralded as a genomic model of social dominance, we generate gene lists, and assess molecular gene modules. In the dominant female gene expression profile, we demonstrate a strong pattern of up-regulation of genes previously identified as having male-biased expression and furthermore, compare expression biases between male and female dominance phenotypes. Using a threshold-free approach to identify correlation throughout ranked gene lists, we query previously published datasets associated with maternal behavior, alternative reproductive tactics, cooperative breeding, and sex-role reversal to describe correlations among these various neural gene expression profiles associated with different instances of social dominance. These complementary approaches capitalize on the high-throughput gene expression profiling from similar behavioral phenotypes in order to address the mechanisms associated with social dominance behavioral phenotypes.
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Sex steroids are major drivers of sexual development and also responsible for the maintenance of the established gender. Especially fishes exhibit great plasticity and less conservation in sex determination and sexual development compared to other vertebrate groups. In addition, fishes have a constant sex steroid production throughout their entire lifespan, which makes them particularly susceptible to interferences with the endogenous sex steroid system. This susceptibility has recently been used to show that inhibition of the key enzyme of estrogen synthesis, aromatase Cyp19a1, can induce functional sex reversal even in adult fish. Here, we investigated the impact of the aromatase inhibitor (AI) fadrozole in adult females of the East African cichlid fish Astatotilapia burtoni. Using gene expression, phenotypic measurements, behavioral experiments, and hormone measurements, we assessed if females treated with fadrozole develop a male-like phenotype. We found that AI treatment has a different effect on gene expression in the gonad compared to the brain, the 2 tissues mostly implicated in sexual development. In contrast to observations in other gonochoristic species, A. burtoni ovaries cannot be transformed into functional testis by AI. However, rapid changes towards a male-like phenotype can be induced with AI in coloration, hormone levels, and behavior.
Next-generation sequencing methods, such as RNA-seq, have permitted the exploration of gene expression in a rangeof organisms which have been studied in ecological contexts but lack a sequenced genome. However, the efﬁcacyand accuracy of RNA-seq annotation methods using reference genomes from related species have yet to be robustlycharacterized. Here we conduct a comprehensive power analysis employing RNA-seq data from Drosophila melano-gaster in conjunction with 11 additional genomes from related Drosophila species to compare annotation methodsand quantify the impact of evolutionary divergence between transcriptome and the reference genome. Our analysesdemonstrate that, regardless of the level of sequence divergence, direct genome mapping (DGM), where transcriptshort reads are aligned directly to the reference genome, signiﬁcantly outperforms the widely used de novo andguided assembly-based methods in both the quantity and accuracy of gene detection. Our analysis also reveals thatDGM recovers a more representative proﬁle of Gene Ontology functional categories, which are often used to inter-pret emergent patterns in genomewide expression analyses. Lastly, analysis of available primate RNA-seq datademonstrates the applicability of our observations across diverse taxa. Our quantiﬁcation of annotation accuracy andreduced gene detection associated with sequence divergence thus provides empirically derived guidelines for thedesign of future gene expression studies in species without sequenced genomes.
Alternative reproductive tactics are powerful examples of how variation in genetics and physiology among individuals can lead to striking diversity in phenotype. In the swordtails (genus Xiphophorus), copy number variation (CNV) at the melanocortin 4 receptor (mc4r) locus is correlated with male body size, which in turn is correlated with male mating behavior. We measured the relationship between mc4r CNV, behavior, and 11-ketotesterone (11-KT) in X. multilineatus to determine whether mc4r CNV was associated with other components of male tactics in addition to body size. We confirmed the results of previous studies, showing that male size increases with mc4r CNV and that mating behavior toward females was size-dependent. We also examined agonistic behavior by exposing males to their mirror image and found that male-male displays behavior were size-dependent. Small males were less likely to exhibit an agonistic response, suggesting that alternative reproductive tactics span intrasexual and intersexual contexts. There was no significant association between mc4r CNV and behavior or 11-KT hormone titer. Mc4r CNV is thus associated with the variation in male body size, but not with other traits independent of body size.
Behavioral studies have often examined parental care by measuring phenotypic plasticity of behavior within a species. Phylogenetic studies have compared parental care among species, but only at broad categories (e.g., care vs. no care). Here we provide a detailed account that integrates phylogenetic analysis with quantitative behavioral data to better understand parental care behavior in the Cuatro Ciénegas cichlid, Herichthys minckleyi. We found that H. minckleyi occurs in a clade of sexually monochromatic or weakly dichromatic monogamous species, but that male and female H. minckleyi have dramatically different reproductive coloration patterns, likely as a result of sexual selection. Furthermore, we found that males are polygynous; large males guard large territories, and smaller males may attempt alternative mating tactics (sneaking). Finally, compared to the closely related monogamous Rio Grande cichlid, H. cyanoguttatus, males of H. minckleyi were present at their nests less often and performed lower rates of aggressive offspring defense, and females compensated for the absence of their mates by performing higher levels of offspring defense. Body color, mating system, and parental care in H. minckleyi appear to have evolved after it colonized Cuatro Ciénegas, and are likely a result of evolution in an isolated, stable environment.
The ultimate-level factors that drive the evolution of mating systems have been well studied, but an evolutionarily conserved neural mechanism involved in shaping behaviour and social organization across species has remained elusive. Here, we review studies that have investigated the role of neural arginine vasopressin (AVP), vasotocin (AVT), and their receptor V1a in mediating variation in territorial behaviour. First, we discuss how aggression and territoriality are a function of population density in an inverted-U relationship according to resource defence theory, and how territoriality influences some mating systems. Next, we find that neural AVP, AVT, and V1a expression, especially in one particular neural circuit involving the lateral septum of the forebrain, are associated with territorial behaviour in males of diverse species, most likely due to their role in enhancing social cognition. Then we review studies that examined multiple species and find that neural AVP, AVT, and V1a expression is associated with territory size in mammals and fishes. Because territoriality plays an important role in shaping mating systems in many species, we present the idea that neural AVP, AVT, and V1a expression that is selected to mediate territory size may also influence the evolution of different mating systems. Future research that interprets proximate-level neuro-molecular mechanisms in the context of ultimate-level ecological theory may provide deep insight into the brain-behaviour relationships that underlie the diversity of social organization and mating systems seen across the animal kingdom.
Neuropeptides modulate many aspects of behavior and physiology in a broad range of animals. Arginine vasotocin (AVT) is implicated in mediating social behavior in teleost fish, although its specific role varies between species, sexes, life stages, and social context. To investigate whether the effects of AVT on behavior depend on social context, we used the African cichlid fish Astatotilapia burtoni, which is well-known for its remarkable behavioral plasticity. We pharmacologically manipulated the AVT system in established socially dominant and subordinate A. burtoni males, as well as in males ascending to dominance status in a socially unstable environment. Our results show that exogenous AVT causes a stress response, as evidenced by reduced behavioral activity and increased circulating levels of cortisol in established dominant and subordinate males. Administration of the AVT antagonist Manning compound, on the other hand, did not affect established subordinate or dominant males. However, AVT antagonist-treated males ascending from subordinate to dominant status exhibited reduced aggressive and increased courtship behavior compared to vehicle-treated animals. Finally, we measured circulating cortisol levels and brain gene expression levels of AVT and its behaviorally relevant V1a2 receptor in all three social phenotypes and found that plasma cortisol and mRNA levels of both genes were increased in ascending males compared to dominant and subordinate males. Our results provide a more detailed understanding of the role of the AVT system in the regulation of complex behavior in a dynamically changing social environment.
Discrete variation in reproductive behavior and physiology is observed in diverse taxa. Although it is known that most within-sex alternative reproductive tactics arise as a consequence of phenotypic plasticity, relatively little is known about differential neural gene expression among plastic alternative reproductive phenotypes. In the ocellated wrasse Symphodus ocellatus, males exhibit one of three alternative tactics (nesting, satellite, and sneaker) within a reproductive season, but switch tactics between years. Satellites and sneakers spawn parasitically in dominant (nesting) males' nests, but only nesting males provide parental care. Nesting and satellite males show transient cooperative defense of nests against sneakers. Here, we analyze circulating sex steroid hormone levels and neural gene expression profiles in these three male phenotypes and in females. 11-ketotestosterone (but not testosterone) was highest in nesting males, while estradiol was highest in females. Brain transcriptomes of satellites and females were most similar to each other and intermediate to nesting and sneaker males. Sneakers showed more total expression differences, whereas nesting males showed higher magnitude expression differences. Our findings reveal the surprising extent to which neural gene expression patterns vary across reproductive tactics that vary in a number of social traits, including aggression, territoriality, and cooperation, providing important insights into the molecular mechanisms that may underlie variation in cooperative and reproductive behavior.