Oestrogen regulates male aggression in the non–breeding season

K. K. Soma, A. D. Tramontin, J. C. Wingfield

Abstract

Extensive research has focused on territorial aggression during the breeding season and the roles of circulating testosterone (T) and its conversion to 17β–oestradiol (E2) in the brain. However, many species also defend territories in the non–breeding season, when circulating T–levels are low. The endocrine control of non–breeding territoriality is poorly understood. The male song sparrow of Washington State is highly territorial year–round, but plasma T is basal in the non–breeding season (autumn and winter). Castration has no effect on aggression in autumn, suggesting that autumnal territoriality is independent of gonadal hormones. However, non–gonadal sex steroids may regulate winter territoriality (e.g. oestrogen synthesis by brain aromatase). In this field experiment, we treated wild non–breeding male song sparrows with a specific aromatase inhibitor (fadrozole, FAD) using micro–osmotic pumps. FAD greatly reduced several aggressive behaviours. The effects of FAD were reversed by E2 replacement. Treatment did not affect body condition or plasma corticosterone, suggesting that all subjects were healthy. These data indicate that E2 regulates male aggression in the non–breeding season and challenge the common belief that aggression in the non–breeding season is independent of sex steroids. More generally, these results raise fundamental questions about how sexual and/or aggressive behaviours are maintained in a variety of model vertebrate species despite low circulating levels of sex steroids or despite castration. Such nonclassical endocrine mechanisms may be common among vertebrates and play an important role in the regulation of behaviour.