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Maternal Epigenetic Transmission of Social Motivation in Birds


Laureline Formanek, UMR 6552 Ethologie animale et humaine, Université de Rennes 1 – CNRS, Bât. 25, Campus de Beaulieu, F-35042 Rennes Cedex, France. E-mail:


Behavioural development is a complex phenomenon involving interactions between genetic constraints and environmental influences. One of the most potent environmental influences during the ontogeny of the behavioural characteristics of young is played by mothers. In particular, mammalian mothers modulate the social competences of their young, influencing all their future social life. Here, we investigated the influence of the social characteristics of adoptive mother birds (Coturnix coturnix japonica) on the social motivation (origin of every social relationship) of the young they reared. We characterized the social behaviour of standard stock chicks reared by female quail, genetically selected either for low (LSR) or high (HSR) levels of social reinstatement (index of treadmill behaviour which combined the tendency to run towards conspecifics with the tendency to move away from them), to investigate epigenetic transmission of social motivation. Our results show that HSR and LSR adoptive mothers partially transmitted their social characteristics to their young: chicks reared by HSR females presented higher levels of social motivation than chicks reared by LSR females. This maternal influence appeared much clearer in young males than in young females. Our study reveals that, as in mammals, bird mothers influence epigenetically the development of the social behaviour of their young.