Behavioral interactions among social animals can regulate both reproductive behavior and fertility. A prime example of socially regulated reproduction occurs in the cichlid fish Haplochromis burtoni, in which interactions between males dynamically regulate gonadal function throughout life. This plasticity is mediated by the brain, where neurons that contain the key reproductive regulatory peptide gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) change size reversibly depending on male social status. To understand how behavior controls the brain, we manipulated the social system of these fish, quantified their behavior and then assessed neural and physiological changes in the reproductive and stress axes. GnRH gene expression was assessed using molecular probes specific for the three GnRH forms in the brain of H. burtoni. We found that perception of social opportunity to increase status by a male leads to heightened aggressiveness, to increased expression of only one of the three GnRH forms and to increases in size of GnRH-containing neurons and of the gonads. The biological changes characteristic of social ascent happen faster than changes following social descent. Interestingly, behavioral changes show the reverse pattern: aggressive behaviors emerge more slowly in ascending animals than they disappear in descending animals. Although the gonads and GnRH neurons undergo similar changes in female H. burtoni, regulation occurs via endogenous rather than exogenous social signals. Our data show that recognition of social signals by males alters stress levels, which may contribute to the alteration in GnRH gene expression in particular neurons essential for the animal to perform in its new social status.
- © The Company of Biologists Limited 2002