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1.  Proximate perspectives on the evolution of female aggression: good for the gander, good for the goose? 
Female–female aggression often functions in competition over reproductive or social benefits, but the proximate mechanisms of this apparently adaptive behaviour are not well understood. The sex steroid hormone testosterone (T) and its metabolites are well-established mediators of male–male aggression, and several lines of evidence suggest that T-mediated mechanisms may apply to females as well. However, a key question is whether mechanisms of female aggression primarily reflect correlated evolutionary responses to selection acting on males, or whether direct selection acting on females has made modifications to these mechanisms that are adaptive in light of female life history. Here, I examine the degree to which female aggression is mediated at the level of T production, target tissue sensitivity to T, or downstream genomic responses in order to test the hypothesis that selection favours mechanisms that facilitate female aggression while minimizing the costs of systemically elevated T. I draw heavily from avian systems, including the dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis), as well as other organisms in which these mechanisms have been well studied from an evolutionary/ecological perspective in both sexes. Findings reveal that the sexes share many behavioural and hormonal mechanisms, though several patterns also suggest sex-specific adaptation. I argue that greater attention to multiple levels of analysis—from hormone to receptor to gene network, including analyses of individual variation that represents the raw material of evolutionary change—will be a fruitful path for understanding mechanisms of behavioural regulation and intersexual coevolution.
PMCID: PMC3826212  PMID: 24167313
female aggression; sex differences; individual variation; androgen receptor; aromatase; sexual conflict
2.  Sources of variation in HPG axis reactivity and individually consistent elevation of sex steroids in a female songbird 
General and comparative endocrinology  2013;194:10.1016/j.ygcen.2013.09.015.
Understanding sources of individual differences in steroid hormone production has important implications for the evolution of reproductive and social behaviors. In females in particular, little is known about the mechanistic sources of these individual differences, despite established linkages between sex steroids and a variety of fitness-related traits. Using captive female dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) from two subspecies, we asked how variation in different components of the hypothalamo-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis related to variation in testosterone production among females, and we compared females to males in multiple components of the HPG axis. We demonstrated consistent individual differences in testosterone elevation in response to challenges with luteinizing hormone (LH) and gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). These hormone challenges led to more LH production but less testosterone production in females than males, and the sexes differed in some but not all measures of sensitivity to hormones along the HPG axis. Similar to findings in males, variation in testosterone production among females was not related to variation in LH production, gonadal LH-receptor mRNA abundance, or hypothalamic abundance of androgen receptor mRNA or aromatase mRNA. Rather, the primary source of individual variation in circulating steroids appears to the gonad, a conclusion further supported by positive correlations between testosterone and estradiol production. Unlike males, females did not differ by subspecies in any of the endocrine parameters that we assessed, suggesting some degree of independent evolution between the two sexes. Our results highlight the sources of physiological variation that may underlie the evolution of hormone-mediated phenotypes in females.
PMCID: PMC3852689  PMID: 24090613
testosterone; individual differences; hypothalamo-pituitary-gonadal axis; estrogen
3.  Neural steroid sensitivity and aggression: comparing individuals of two songbird subspecies 
Journal of evolutionary biology  2013;26(4):820-831.
Hormones coordinate the expression of complex phenotypes and thus may play important roles in evolutionary processes. When populations diverge in hormone-mediated phenotypes, differences may arise via changes in circulating hormones, sensitivity to hormones, or both. Determining the relative importance of signal and sensitivity requires consideration of both inter- and intra-population variation in hormone levels, hormone sensitivity, and phenotype, but such studies are rare, particularly among closely related taxa. We compared males of two subspecies of the dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) for territorial aggression and associations among behavior, circulating testosterone (T), and gene expression of androgen receptor (AR), aromatase (AROM), and estrogen receptor α in three behaviorally relevant brain regions. Thus, we examined the degree to which evolution may shape behavior via changes in plasma T as compared to key sex steroid binding/converting molecules. We found that the white-winged junco (J. h. aikeni) was more aggressive than the smaller, less ornamented Carolina junco (J. h. carolinensis). The subspecies did not differ in circulating testosterone, but did differ significantly in the abundance of AR and AROM mRNA in key areas of the brain. Within populations, both gene expression and circulating T co-varied significantly and positively with individual differences in aggression. Notably, the differences identified between populations were opposite to those predicted by the patterns among individuals within populations. These findings suggest that hormone-phenotype relationships may evolve via multiple pathways, and that changes that have occurred over evolutionary time do not necessarily reflect standing physiological variation on which current evolutionary processes may act.
PMCID: PMC3622748  PMID: 23517519
Testosterone; aggression; androgen receptor; aromatase; individual variation; divergence; hypothalamus; nucleus taeniae; medial amygdala; ventromedial telencephalon
4.  Robust behavioral effects of song playback in the absence of testosterone or corticosterone release 
Hormones and behavior  2012;62(4):418-425.
Some species of songbirds elevate testosterone in response to territorial intrusions while others do not. The search for a general explanation for this interspecific variation in hormonal response to social challenges has been impeded by methodological differences among studies. We asked whether song playback alone is sufficient to bring about elevation in testosterone or corticosterone in the dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis), a species that has previously demonstrated significant testosterone elevation in response to a simulated territorial intrusion when song was accompanied by a live decoy. We studied two populations of juncos that differ in length of breeding season (6–8 v. 14–16 weeks), and conducted playbacks of high amplitude, long-range song. In one population, we also played low amplitude, short-range song, a highly potent elicitor of aggression in juncos and many songbirds. We observed strong aggressive responses to both types of song, but no detectable elevation of plasma testosterone or corticosterone in either population. We also measured rise in corticosterone in response to handling post-playback, and found full capacity to elevate corticosterone but no effect of song class (long-range or short-range) on elevation. Collectively, our data suggest that males can mount an aggressive response to playback without a change in testosterone or corticosterone, despite the ability to alter these hormones during other types of social interactions. We discuss the observed decoupling of circulating hormones and aggression in relation to mechanisms of behavior and the cues that may activate the HPA and HPG axes.
PMCID: PMC3477244  PMID: 22850247
5.  Testosterone Affects Neural Gene Expression Differently in Male and Female Juncos: A Role for Hormones in Mediating Sexual Dimorphism and Conflict 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(4):e61784.
Despite sharing much of their genomes, males and females are often highly dimorphic, reflecting at least in part the resolution of sexual conflict in response to sexually antagonistic selection. Sexual dimorphism arises owing to sex differences in gene expression, and steroid hormones are often invoked as a proximate cause of sexual dimorphism. Experimental elevation of androgens can modify behavior, physiology, and gene expression, but knowledge of the role of hormones remains incomplete, including how the sexes differ in gene expression in response to hormones. We addressed these questions in a bird species with a long history of behavioral endocrinological and ecological study, the dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis), using a custom microarray. Focusing on two brain regions involved in sexually dimorphic behavior and regulation of hormone secretion, we identified 651 genes that differed in expression by sex in medial amygdala and 611 in hypothalamus. Additionally, we treated individuals of each sex with testosterone implants and identified many genes that may be related to previously identified phenotypic effects of testosterone treatment. Some of these genes relate to previously identified effects of testosterone-treatment and suggest that the multiple effects of testosterone may be mediated by modifying the expression of a small number of genes. Notably, testosterone-treatment tended to alter expression of different genes in each sex: only 4 of the 527 genes identified as significant in one sex or the other were significantly differentially expressed in both sexes. Hormonally regulated gene expression is a key mechanism underlying sexual dimorphism, and our study identifies specific genes that may mediate some of these processes.
PMCID: PMC3627916  PMID: 23613935
6.  Life History Trade-Offs and Behavioral Sensitivity to Testosterone: An Experimental Test When Female Aggression and Maternal Care Co-Occur 
PLoS ONE  2013;8(1):e54120.
Research on male animals suggests that the hormone testosterone plays a central role in mediating the trade-off between mating effort and parental effort. However, the direct links between testosterone, intrasexual aggression and parental care are remarkably mixed across species. Previous attempts to reconcile these patterns suggest that selection favors behavioral insensitivity to testosterone when paternal care is essential to reproductive success and when breeding seasons are especially short. Females also secrete testosterone, though the degree to which similar testosterone-mediated trade-offs occur in females is much less clear. Here, I ask whether testosterone mediates trade-offs between aggression and incubation in females, and whether patterns of female sensitivity to testosterone relate to female life history, as is often the case in males. I experimentally elevated testosterone in free-living, incubating female tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor), a songbird with a short breeding season during which female incubation and intrasexual aggression are both essential to female reproductive success. Testosterone-treated females showed significantly elevated aggression, reduced incubation temperatures, and reduced hatching success, relative to controls. Thus, prolonged testosterone elevation during incubation was detrimental to reproductive success, but females nonetheless showed behavioral sensitivity to testosterone. These findings suggest that the relative importance of both mating effort and parental effort may be central to understanding patterns of behavioral sensitivity in both sexes.
PMCID: PMC3544668  PMID: 23342089
7.  Intrasexual competition in females: evidence for sexual selection? 
Behavioral Ecology  2011;22(6):1131-1140.
In spite of recent interest in sexual selection in females, debate exists over whether traits that influence female–female competition are sexually selected. This review uses female–female aggressive behavior as a model behavioral trait for understanding the evolutionary mechanisms promoting intrasexual competition, focusing especially on sexual selection. I employ a broad definition of sexual selection, whereby traits that influence competition for mates are sexually selected, whereas those that directly influence fecundity or offspring survival are naturally selected. Drawing examples from across animal taxa, including humans, I examine 4 predictions about female intrasexual competition based on the abundance of resources, the availability of males, and the direct or indirect benefits those males provide. These patterns reveal a key sex difference in sexual selection: Although females may compete for the number of mates, they appear to compete more so for access to high-quality mates that provide direct and indirect (genetic) benefits. As is the case in males, intrasexual selection in females also includes competition for essential resources required for access to mates. If mate quality affects the magnitude of mating success, then restricting sexual selection to competition for quantity of mates may ignore important components of fitness in females and underestimate the role of sexual selection in shaping female phenotype. In the future, understanding sex differences in sexual selection will require further exploration of the extent of mutual intrasexual competition and the incorporation of quality of mating success into the study of sexual selection in both sexes.
PMCID: PMC3199163  PMID: 22479137
aggression; female competition; intrasexual selection; mating success; sexual selection
8.  By any name, female–female competition yields differential mating success 
Behavioral Ecology  2011;22(6):1144-1146.
PMCID: PMC3199164  PMID: 22479138
female aggression; female competition; sexual selection

Results 1-8 (8)