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Abstract

Numerous studies have demonstrated interactions between oxytocin (OT) secretion, adrenal activity, an animal's social environment, and stress responses. In the present study, we hypothesized that partner preference and pair bonding cause increased peripheral OT, which down-regulates the adrenal and behavioral response in stress. In addition, we tested whether these interactions depended on sex, the social environment of the individual, or the type of stressor. Experiments were carried out on guinea-pigs held in sexual-pairs or stressed by isolation. Among the paired individuals choice tests were carried out to document partner preference. Female preference for a male was expressed by spatial cohesion. Stress responses to abiotic stimuli were examined and compared between isolated and cohabited animals with or without preference. Results show that OT of cohabited animals was significantly higher than during isolation. OT levels were further increased in males preferred by females. Cortisol (CORT) levels were elevated in isolated animals. There were no significant differences between pairs with and without female preference. Behaviorally, partner preferences were expressed by high amounts of tactile contact. The stress-induced behavioral immobility response after exposure to a noise stressor was significantly reduced in preferred males and to a lesser extent in their female partners. Only females with preferences showed an endocrine stress response. Their levels of OT increased. There was no consistent post-stressor release of CORT. The data indicate that the social environment of an individual, here expressed as preference or isolation, influences peripheral OT secretion. Behavioral stress responses were similarly affected by social factors without a clear involvement of peripheral CORT or OT.