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Keywords:

  • maternal effects;
  • behavior;
  • hypothalamus–pituitary–gonadal axis;
  • individual variation;
  • yolk hormone

Abstract

Despite the well-known, long-term, organizational actions of sex steroids on phenotypic differences between the sexes, studies of maternal steroids in the vertebrate egg have mainly focused on effects seen in early life. Long-term organizational effects of yolk hormones on adult behavior and the underlying mechanisms that generate them have been largely ignored. Using an experiment in which hand-reared house sparrows (Passer domesticus) from testosterone- or control-treated eggs were kept under identical conditions, we show that testosterone treatment in the egg increased the frequency of aggressive, dominance, and sexual behavior of 1-year-old, reproductively competent house sparrows. We also show that circulating plasma levels of progesterone, testosterone, 5α-dihydrotestosterone, and 17β-estradiol did not differ between treatment groups. Thus, a simple change in adult gonadal hormone secretion is not the primary physiological cause of long-term effects of maternal steroids on adult behavior. Rather, differences in adult behavior caused by exposure to yolk testosterone during embryonic development are likely generated by organizational modifications of brain function. Furthermore, our data provide evidence that hormone-mediated maternal effects are an epigenetic mechanism causing intra-sexual variation in adult behavioral phenotype. © 2008 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Develop Neurobiol 2008