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1.  Linking appraisal to behavioral flexibility in animals: implications for stress research 
In fluctuating environments, organisms require mechanisms enabling the rapid expression of context-dependent behaviors. Here, we approach behavioral flexibility from a perspective rooted in appraisal theory, aiming to provide a better understanding on how animals adjust their internal state to environmental context. Appraisal has been defined as a multi-component and interactive process between the individual and the environment, in which the individual must evaluate the significance of a stimulus to generate an adaptive response. Within this framework, we review and reframe the existing evidence for the appraisal components in animal literature, in an attempt to reveal the common ground of appraisal mechanisms between species. Furthermore, cognitive biases may occur in the appraisal of ambiguous stimuli. These biases may be interpreted either as states open to environmental modulation or as long-lasting phenotypic traits. Finally, we discuss the implications of cognitive bias for stress research.
PMCID: PMC4410615  PMID: 25964752
behavioral flexibility; appraisal; animal behavior; cognitive bias; stress
2.  Testosterone response to competition in males is unrelated to opponent familiarity or threat appraisal 
Frontiers in Psychology  2014;5:1240.
It has been proposed in the literature that the testosterone (T) response to competition in humans may be modulated by cognitive variables. In a previous experiment with a female sample we have reported that opponent familiarity and threat appraisal moderated the T response to competition in women. With this experiment we aim to investigate if these variables have the same impact on males T response to competition, extending the previous findings in our lab. Forty male participants (20 dyads) were recruited to engage in a same sex, face to face competition using the Number Tracking Test as a competitive task. Levels of T, cortisol (C) and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) were measured before and 20 min after the competition. Results show that losers report higher levels of threat than winners and increased their T levels after the competition, however this T change was not predicted by opponent familiarity or threat appraisal. No variation was detected for C and DHEA levels. These findings suggest that there could be sex differences for the moderators/mediators of the T response to competition in humans.
PMCID: PMC4217340  PMID: 25404923
androgens; testosterone; challenge hypothesis; sex factors; cognition
3.  Noninvasive Measurement of Steroid Hormones in Zebrafish Holding-Water 
Zebrafish  2013;10(1):110-115.
Zebrafish (Danio rerio) has recently emerged as a new animal model in neuroendocrinology and behavior (e.g., stress physiology and ecotoxicology studies). In these areas, the concentrations of steroid hormones in the blood are often used to study the endocrinological status of individuals. However, due to the small body size of zebrafish, blood sampling is difficult to perform and the amount of plasma obtained per sample for assaying hormones is very small (ca. 1–5 μL), and therefore most studies have been using whole-body hormone concentrations, which implies sacrificing the individuals and hampers sequential sampling of the same individual. Here a noninvasive method to assay steroid hormones from zebrafish holding-water, based on the fact that steroids are released into the fish holding-water through the gills by passive diffusion, is validated. Cortisol and the androgen 11-ketotestosterone (KT) were measured in water samples and compared to plasma levels in the same individuals. Cortisol released to holding-water correlates positively with plasma concentrations, but there was a lack of correlation between KT water and circulating levels. However, KT levels showed a highly significant sex difference that can be used to noninvasively sex individuals. An ACTH challenge test demonstrated that an induced increase in circulating cortisol concentration can be reliably detected in holding-water levels, hence attesting the responsiveness of holding-water levels to fluctuations in circulating levels.
PMCID: PMC3629781  PMID: 23445429
4.  Androgen modulation of social decision-making mechanisms in the brain: an integrative and embodied perspective 
Apart from their role in reproduction androgens also respond to social challenges and this response has been seen as a way to regulate the expression of behavior according to the perceived social environment (Challenge hypothesis, Wingfield et al., 1990). This hypothesis implies that social decision-making mechanisms localized in the central nervous system (CNS) are open to the influence of peripheral hormones that ultimately are under the control of the CNS through the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis. Therefore, two puzzling questions emerge at two different levels of biological analysis: (1) Why does the brain, which perceives the social environment and regulates androgen production in the gonad, need feedback information from the gonad to adjust its social decision-making processes? (2) How does the brain regulate gonadal androgen responses to social challenges and how do these feedback into the brain? In this paper, we will address these two questions using the integrative approach proposed by Niko Tinbergen, who proposed that a full understanding of behavior requires its analysis at both proximate (physiology, ontogeny) and ultimate (ecology, evolution) levels.
PMCID: PMC4105629  PMID: 25100938
androgens; testosterone; ultimate causes; proximate causes; embodiment; challenge hypothesis
5.  Threat perception and familiarity moderate the androgen response to competition in women 
Social interactions elicit androgen responses whose function has been posited to be the adjustment of androgen-dependent behaviors to social context. The activation of this androgen response is known to be mediated and moderated by psychological factors. In this study we tested the hypothesis that the testosterone (T) changes after a competition are not simply related to its outcome, but rather to the way the subject evaluates the event. In particular we tested two evaluative dimensions of a social interaction: familiarity with the opponent and the subjective evaluation of the outcome as threat or challenge. Challenge/threat occurs in goal relevant situations and represent different motivational states arising from the individuals’ subjective evaluation of the interplay between the task demands and coping resources possessed. For challenge the coping resources exceed the task demands, while threat represents a state where coping resources are insufficient to meet the task demands. In this experiment women competed in pairs, against a same sex opponent using the number tracking test as a competitive task. Losers appraised the competition outcome as more threatening than winners, and displayed higher post-competition T levels than winners. No differences were found either for cortisol (C) or for dehydroepiandrosterone. Threat, familiarity with the opponent and T response were associated only in the loser condition. Moderation analysis suggests that for the women that lost the competition the effect of threat on T is moderated by familiarity with the opponent.
PMCID: PMC3701856  PMID: 23847564
cognitive appraisal; threat; challenge; familiarity; testosterone; competition
6.  Mind the fish: zebrafish as a model in cognitive social neuroscience 
Understanding how the brain implements social behavior on one hand, and how social processes feedback on the brain to promote fine-tuning of behavioral output according to changes in the social environment is a major challenge in contemporary neuroscience. A critical step to take this challenge successfully is finding the appropriate level of analysis when relating social to biological phenomena. Given the enormous complexity of both the neural networks of the brain and social systems, the use of a cognitive level of analysis (in an information processing perspective) is proposed here as an explanatory interface between brain and behavior. A conceptual framework for a cognitive approach to comparative social neuroscience is proposed, consisting of the following steps to be taken across different species with varying social systems: (1) identification of the functional building blocks of social skills; (2) identification of the cognitive mechanisms underlying the previously identified social skills; and (3) mapping these information processing mechanisms onto the brain. Teleost fish are presented here as a group of choice to develop this approach, given the diversity of social systems present in closely related species that allows for planned phylogenetic comparisons, and the availability of neurogenetic tools that allows the visualization and manipulation of selected neural circuits in model species such as the zebrafish. Finally, the state-of-the art of zebrafish social cognition and of the tools available to map social cognitive abilities to neural circuits in zebrafish are reviewed.
PMCID: PMC3737460  PMID: 23964204
social neuroscience; zebrafish; social cognition; cognitive modules; social behavior; social brain
7.  Oestradiol and prostaglandin F2α regulate sexual displays in females of a sex-role reversed fish 
The mechanisms regulating sexual behaviours in female vertebrates are still poorly understood, mainly because in most species sexual displays in females are more subtle and less frequent than displays in males. In a sex-role reversed population of a teleost fish, the peacock blenny Salaria pavo, an external fertilizer, females are the courting sex and their sexual displays are conspicuous and unambiguous. We took advantage of this to investigate the role of ovarian-synthesized hormones in the induction of sexual displays in females. In particular, the effects of the sex steroids oestradiol (E2) and testosterone (T) and of the prostaglandin F2α (PGF2α) were tested. Females were ovariectomized and their sexual behaviour tested 7 days (sex steroids and PGF2α) and 14 days (sex steroids) after ovariectomy by presenting females to an established nesting male. Ovariectomy reduced the expression of sexual behaviours, although a significant proportion of females still courted the male 14 days after the ovary removal. Administration of PGF2α to ovariectomized females recovered the frequency of approaches to the male's nest and of courtship displays towards the nesting male. However, E2 also had a positive effect on sexual behaviour, particularly on the frequency of approaches to the male's nest. T administration failed to recover sexual behaviours in ovariectomized females. These results suggest that the increase in E2 levels postulated to occur during the breeding season facilitates female mate-searching and assessment behaviours, whereas PGF2α acts as a short-latency endogenous signal informing the brain that oocytes are mature and ready to be spawned. In the light of these results, the classical view for female fishes, that sex steroids maintain sexual behaviour in internal fertilizers and that prostaglandins activate spawning behaviours in external fertilizers, needs to be reviewed.
PMCID: PMC3906950  PMID: 24452030
sex steroids; prostaglandins; oestradiol; testosterone; PGF2α; Salaria pavo
8.  Social odors conveying dominance and reproductive information induce rapid physiological and neuromolecular changes in a cichlid fish 
BMC Genomics  2015;16(1):114.
Social plasticity is a pervasive feature of animal behavior. Animals adjust the expression of their social behavior to the daily changes in social life and to transitions between life-history stages, and this ability has an impact in their Darwinian fitness. This behavioral plasticity may be achieved either by rewiring or by biochemically switching nodes of the neural network underlying social behavior in response to perceived social information. Independent of the proximate mechanisms, at the neuromolecular level social plasticity relies on the regulation of gene expression, such that different neurogenomic states emerge in response to different social stimuli and the switches between states are orchestrated by signaling pathways that interface the social environment and the genotype. Here, we test this hypothesis by characterizing the changes in the brain profile of gene expression in response to social odors in the Mozambique Tilapia, Oreochromis mossambicus. This species has a rich repertoire of social behaviors during which both visual and chemical information are conveyed to conspecifics. Specifically, dominant males increase their urination frequency during agonist encounters and during courtship to convey chemical information reflecting their dominance status.
We recorded electro-olfactograms to test the extent to which the olfactory epithelium can discriminate between olfactory information from dominant and subordinate males as well as from pre- and post-spawning females. We then performed a genome-scale gene expression analysis of the olfactory bulb and the olfactory cortex homolog in order to identify the neuromolecular systems involved in processing these social stimuli.
Our results show that different olfactory stimuli from conspecifics’ have a major impact in the brain transcriptome, with different chemical social cues eliciting specific patterns of gene expression in the brain. These results confirm the role of rapid changes in gene expression in the brain as a genomic mechanism underlying behavioral plasticity and reinforce the idea of an extensive transcriptional plasticity of cichlid genomes, especially in response to rapid changes in their social environment.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12864-015-1255-4) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4344806  PMID: 25766511
Cichlid; Olfaction; Olfactory bulb; Telencephalon; Microarray; Transcriptomics
9.  Behavioural Stress Responses Predict Environmental Perception in European Sea Bass (Dicentrarchus labrax) 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(9):e108800.
Individual variation in the response to environmental challenges depends partly on innate reaction norms, partly on experience-based cognitive/emotional evaluations that individuals make of the situation. The goal of this study was to investigate whether pre-existing differences in behaviour predict the outcome of such assessment of environmental cues, using a conditioned place preference/avoidance (CPP/CPA) paradigm. A comparative vertebrate model (European sea bass, Dicentrarchus labrax) was used, and ninety juvenile individuals were initially screened for behavioural reactivity using a net restraining test. Thereafter each individual was tested in a choice tank using net chasing as aversive stimulus or exposure to familiar conspecifics as appetitive stimulus in the preferred or non preferred side respectively (called hereafter stimulation side). Locomotor behaviour (i.e. time spent, distance travelled and swimming speed in each tank side) of each individual was recorded and analysed with video software. The results showed that fish which were previously exposed to appetitive stimulus increased significantly the time spent on the stimulation side, while aversive stimulus led to a strong decrease in time spent on the stimulation side. Moreover, this study showed clearly that proactive fish were characterised by a stronger preference for the social stimulus and when placed in a putative aversive environment showed a lower physiological stress responses than reactive fish. In conclusion, this study showed for the first time in sea bass, that the CPP/CPA paradigm can be used to assess the valence (positive vs. negative) that fish attribute to different stimuli and that individual behavioural traits is predictive of how stimuli are perceived and thus of the magnitude of preference or avoidance behaviour.
PMCID: PMC4181860  PMID: 25264870
10.  A Three-Dimensional Stereotaxic MRI Brain Atlas of the Cichlid Fish Oreochromis mossambicus 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(9):e44086.
The African cichlid Oreochromis mossambicus (Mozambique tilapia) has been used as a model system in a wide range of behavioural and neurobiological studies. The increasing number of genetic tools available for this species, together with the emerging interest in its use for neurobiological studies, increased the need for an accurate hodological mapping of the tilapia brain to supplement the available histological data. The goal of our study was to elaborate a three-dimensional, high-resolution digital atlas using magnetic resonance imaging, supported by Nissl staining. Resulting images were viewed and analysed in all orientations (transverse, sagittal, and horizontal) and manually labelled to reveal structures in the olfactory bulb, telencephalon, diencephalon, optic tectum, and cerebellum. This high resolution tilapia brain atlas is expected to become a very useful tool for neuroscientists using this fish model and will certainly expand their use in future studies regarding the central nervous system.
PMCID: PMC3439461  PMID: 22984463
11.  Nemo through the looking-glass: a commentary on Desjardins & Fernald 
Biology Letters  2011;7(4):487-488.
PMCID: PMC3130208  PMID: 21525054
12.  Arginine Vasotocin Regulation of Interspecific Cooperative Behaviour in a Cleaner Fish 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(7):e39583.
In an interspecific cooperative context, individuals must be prepared to tolerate close interactive proximity to other species but also need to be able to respond to relevant social stimuli in the most appropriate manner. The neuropeptides vasopressin and oxytocin and their non-mammalian homologues have been implicated in the evolution of sociality and in the regulation of social behaviour across vertebrates. However, little is known about the underlying physiological mechanisms of interspecific cooperative interactions. In interspecific cleaning mutualisms, interactions functionally resemble most intraspecific social interactions. Here we provide the first empirical evidence that arginine vasotocin (AVT), a non-mammalian homologue of arginine vasopressin (AVP), plays a critical role as moderator of interspecific behaviour in the best studied and ubiquitous marine cleaning mutualism involving the Indo-Pacific bluestreak cleaner wrasse Labroides dimidiatus. Exogenous administration of AVT caused a substantial decrease of most interspecific cleaning activities, without similarly affecting the expression of conspecific directed behaviour, which suggests a differential effect of AVT on cleaning behaviour and not a general effect on social behaviour. Furthermore, the AVP-V1a receptor antagonist (manning compound) induced a higher likelihood for cleaners to engage in cleaning interactions and also to increase their levels of dishonesty towards clients. The present findings extend the knowledge of neuropeptide effects on social interactions beyond the study of their influence on conspecific social behaviour. Our evidence demonstrates that AVT pathways might play a pivotal role in the regulation of interspecific cooperative behaviour and conspecific social behaviour among stabilized pairs of cleaner fish. Moreover, our results suggest that the role of AVT as a neurochemical regulator of social behaviour may have been co-opted in the evolution of cooperative behaviour in an interspecific context, a hypothesis that is amenable to further testing on the potential direct central mechanism involved.
PMCID: PMC3389009  PMID: 22802939
13.  Face Your Fears: Cleaning Gobies Inspect Predators despite Being Stressed by Them 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(6):e39781.
Social stressors typically elicit two distinct behavioural responses in vertebrates: an active response (i.e., “fight or flight”) or behavioural inhibition (i.e., freezing). Here, we report an interesting exception to this dichotomy in a Caribbean cleaner fish, which interacts with a wide variety of reef fish clients, including predatory species. Cleaning gobies appraise predatory clients as potential threat and become stressed in their presence, as evidenced by their higher cortisol levels when exposed to predatory rather than to non-predatory clients. Nevertheless, cleaning gobies neither flee nor freeze in response to dangerous clients but instead approach predators faster (both in captivity and in the wild), and interact longer with these clients than with non-predatory clients (in the wild). We hypothesise that cleaners interrupt the potentially harmful physiological consequences elicited by predatory clients by becoming increasingly proactive and by reducing the time elapsed between client approach and the start of the interaction process. The activation of a stress response may therefore also be responsible for the longer cleaning service provided by these cleaners to predatory clients in the wild. Future experimental studies may reveal similar patterns in other social vertebrate species when, for instance, individuals approach an opponent for reconciliation after a conflict.
PMCID: PMC3384605  PMID: 22802925
14.  Hormonal mechanisms of cooperative behaviour 
Research on the diversity, evolution and stability of cooperative behaviour has generated a considerable body of work. As concepts simplify the real world, theoretical solutions are typically also simple. Real behaviour, in contrast, is often much more diverse. Such diversity, which is increasingly acknowledged to help in stabilizing cooperative outcomes, warrants detailed research about the proximate mechanisms underlying decision-making. Our aim here is to focus on the potential role of neuroendocrine mechanisms on the regulation of the expression of cooperative behaviour in vertebrates. We first provide a brief introduction into the neuroendocrine basis of social behaviour. We then evaluate how hormones may influence known cognitive modules that are involved in decision-making processes that may lead to cooperative behaviour. Based on this evaluation, we will discuss specific examples of how hormones may contribute to the variability of cooperative behaviour at three different levels: (i) within an individual; (ii) between individuals and (iii) between species. We hope that these ideas spur increased research on the behavioural endocrinology of cooperation.
PMCID: PMC2936176  PMID: 20679116
cooperative behaviour; vertebrates; arginine–vasopressin; oxytocin; androgens; glucocorticoids
15.  Why do winners keep winning? Androgen mediation of winner but not loser effects in cichlid fish 
Animal conflicts are influenced by social experience such that a previous winning experience increases the probability of winning the next agonistic interaction, whereas a previous losing experience has the opposite effect. Since androgens respond to social interactions, increasing in winners and decreasing in losers, we hypothesized that socially induced transient changes in androgen levels could be a causal mediator of winner/loser effects. To test this hypothesis, we staged fights between dyads of size-matched males of the Mozambique tilapia (Oreochromis mossambicus). After the first contest, winners were treated with the anti-androgen cyproterone acetate and losers were supplemented with 11-ketotestosterone. Two hours after the end of the first fight, two contests were staged simultaneously between the winner of the first fight and a naive male and between the loser of first fight and another naive male. The majority (88%) of control winners also won the second interaction, whereas the majority of control losers (87%) lost their second fight, thus confirming the presence of winner/loser effects in this species. As predicted, the success of anti-androgen-treated winners in the second fight decreased significantly to chance levels (44%), but the success of androgenized losers (19%) did not show a significant increase. In summary, the treatment with anti-androgen blocks the winner effect, whereas androgen administration fails to reverse the loser effect, suggesting an involvement of androgens on the winner but not on the loser effect.
PMCID: PMC2677608  PMID: 19324741
social experience; winner effect; androgens; testosterone; aggression
16.  Do cleaning organisms reduce the stress response of client reef fish? 
Frontiers in Zoology  2007;4:21.
Marine cleaning interactions in which cleaner fish or shrimps remove parasites from visiting 'client' reef fish are a textbook example of mutualism. However, there is yet no conclusive evidence that cleaning organisms significantly improve the health of their clients. We tested the stress response of wild caught individuals of two client species, Chromis dimidiata and Pseudanthias squamipinnis, that had either access to a cleaner wrasse Labroides dimidiatus, or to cleaner shrimps Stenopus hispidus and Periclimenes longicarpus, or no access to cleaning organisms.
For both client species, we found an association between the presence of cleaner organisms and a reduction in the short term stress response of client fish to capture, transport and one hour confinement in small aquaria, as measured with cortisol levels.
It is conceivable that individuals who are more easily stressed than others pay a fitness cost in the long run. Thus, our data suggest that marine cleaning mutualisms are indeed mutualistic. More generally, measures of stress responses or basal levels may provide a useful tool to assess the impact of interspecific interactions on the partner species.
PMCID: PMC2134928  PMID: 17945011
17.  Alternative male reproductive tactics and the immunocompetence handicap in the Azorean rock-pool blenny, Parablennius parvicornis 
In the Azorean rock-pool blenny (Parablennius parvicornis) reproductively active males display alternative morphotypes, which differ in the expression of secondary sexual characters (SSC). Males expressing SSC, the M+ morphotype, have high androgen levels and compete for crevices that will be visited by females to spawn. M+ males holding nests court females and care for the eggs. Males with low expression of SSC, the M− morphotype, have low levels of androgens and reproduce by stealing fertilizations from the M+ males. Based on the hypothesis that androgens are immunosuppressive, we expected these morphotypes to differ in immunocompetence. To test this hypothesis, we conducted a field study in which we collected repeated blood samples to monitor leukocyte populations (blood smears), and to measure the primary antibody response of males that were experimentally challenged with a foreign non-pathogenic antigen (sheep red blood cells). Circulating levels of 11-ketotestosterone and testosterone were higher in M+ males than in M− males. Neither granulocyte nor thrombocyte counts did covariate with androgens or male tactic. In contrast, lymphocyte counts and humoral antibody response were negatively correlated with body size, and as expected, both were lower in M+ than in M− males. Interestingly, in M+ males androgen levels decreased after immunization, and this was less in nest-holder males than in M+ males that were floating around in the pools. Within each morphotype we found no relationship between androgens and immunocompetence. The latter result is not supportive for androgen regulated immunosuppression in M+ males. A possible alternative is enhancement of immunity in M− males. These males had relatively high levels of injuries in comparison with M+ males. High immunity might be a consequence of high infection rate because of such injuries.
PMCID: PMC1560248  PMID: 16627274
alternative reproductive tactics; leukocytes; 11-ketotestosterone; testosterone; sheep red blood cells; haemagglutination

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