Naked mole-rats are eusocial mammals, living in large colonies with a single breeding female and 1–3 breeding males. Breeders are socially dominant, and only the breeders exhibit traditional sex differences in circulating gonadal steroid hormones and reproductive behaviors. Non-reproductive subordinates also fail to show sex differences in overall body size, external genital morphology, and non-reproductive behaviors. However, subordinates can transition to breeding status if removed from their colony and housed with an opposite-sex conspecific, suggesting the presence of latent sex differences. Here, we assessed the expression of steroid hormone receptor and aromatase messenger RNA (mRNA) in the brains of males and females as they transitioned in social and reproductive status.
We compared in-colony subordinates to opposite-sex subordinate pairs that were removed from their colony for either 1 day, 1 week, 1 month, or until they became breeders (i.e., produced a litter). Diencephalic tissue was collected and mRNA of androgen receptor (Ar), estrogen receptor alpha (Esr1), progesterone receptor (Pgr), and aromatase (Cyp19a1) was measured using qPCR. Testosterone, 17β-estradiol, and progesterone from serum were also measured.
As early as 1 week post-removal, males exhibited increased diencephalic Ar mRNA and circulating testosterone, whereas females had increased Cyp19a1 mRNA in the diencephalon. At 1 month post-removal, females exhibited increased 17β-estradiol and progesterone. The largest changes in steroid hormone receptors were observed in breeders. Breeding females had a threefold increase in Cyp19a1 and fivefold increases in Esr1 and Pgr, whereas breeding males had reduced Pgr and increased Ar.
These data demonstrate that sex differences in circulating gonadal steroids and hypothalamic gene expression emerge weeks to months after subordinate animals are removed from reproductive suppression in their home colony.