Aggressive behaviour is an important aspect in the daily lives of animals living in groups. Aggressive animals have advantages, such as better access to food or territories, and they produce more offspring than low ranking animals. The social hierarchy in chickens is measured using the 'pecking order' concept, which counts the number of aggressive pecks given and received. To date, little is known about the underlying genetics of the 'pecking order'.
A total of 60 hens from a high feather pecking selection line were divided into three groups: only receivers (R), only peckers (P) and mixed peckers and receivers (P&R). In comparing the R and P groups, we observed that there were 40 differentially expressed genes [false discovery rate (FDR) P < 0.10]. It was not fully clear how the 40 genes regulated aggressive behaviour; however, gene set analysis detected a number of GO identifiers, which were potentially involved in aggressive behavioural processes. These genes code for synaptosomes (GO:0019797), and proteins involved in the regulation of the excitatory postsynaptic membrane potential (GO:0060079), the regulation of the membrane potential (GO:0042391), and glutamate receptor binding (GO:0035254).
In conclusion, our study provides new insights into which genes are involved in aggressive behaviours in chickens. Pecking and receiving hens exhibited different gene expression profiles in their brains. Following confirmation, the identification of differentially expressed genes may elucidate how the pecking order forms in laying hens at a molecular level.