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Hormonal Correlates of Social Rank in an Asocial Species, the Common Brushtail Possum (Trichosurus vulpecula)


Priscilla M. Wehi, University of Waikato, Private Bag, Hamilton, New Zealand. E-mail:


Dominance hierarchies play an important role in access to mates or resources in many species. Rank is sometimes correlated with circulating testosterone levels or morphological traits such as body weight. The relationship of glucocorticoid secretion and rank, however, is less clear. In this study, we investigated the relationship of male rank to body weight, circulating testosterone and cortisol concentrations in captive possum triads (Trichosurus vulpecula). We carried out two experiments to examine hierarchy formation and the effects of castration of the dominant male during the non-breeding season. A third experiment measured the effects of removal of the dominant male from a stable hierarchy during the breeding season. We found that dominant male rank was significantly correlated with higher circulating testosterone levels during periods of hierarchy formation and during the breeding season but not during periods of hierarchy stability in the non-breeding season. Lack of correlation between plasma testosterone concentration and rank after male castration suggests that stable social rank is not dependent on hormone level and may be more dependent on behavioural traits. Any biocontrol measures that rely on manipulation of hormone levels may be unreliable when applied to unstable hierarchical situations, including the establishment of territories by subadult males, and the pre-breeding season when circulating testosterone concentrations peak in males and a period of hierarchy establishment may occur.

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