Females of an African cichlid fish display male-typical social dominance behavior and elevated androgens in the absence of males

Suzy C P Renn, Eleanor J. Fraser, Nadia Aubin-Horth, Brian C. Trainor, Hans A. Hofmann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

35 Scopus citations


Social environment can affect the expression of sex-typical behavior in both males and females. Males of the African cichlid species Astatotilapia burtoni have long served as a model system to study the neural, endocrine, and molecular basis of socially plastic dominance behavior. Here we show that in all-female communities of A. burtoni, some individuals acquire a male-typical dominance phenotype, including aggressive territorial defense, distinctive color patterns, and courtship behavior. Furthermore, dominant females have higher levels of circulating androgens than either subordinate females or females in mixed-sex communities. These male-typical traits do not involve sex change, nor do the social phenotypes in all-female communities differ in relative ovarian size, suggesting that factors other than gonadal physiology underlie much of the observed variation. In contrast to the well-studied situation in males, dominant and subordinate females do not differ in the rate of somatic growth. Dominant females are not any more likely than subordinates to spawn with an introduced male, although they do so sooner. These results extend the well known extraordinary behavioral plasticity of A. burtoni to the females of this species and provide a foundation for uncovering the neural and molecular basis of social dominance behavior while controlling for factors such as sex, gonadal state and growth.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)496-503
Number of pages8
JournalHormones and Behavior
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2012



  • Aggression
  • Growth
  • Reproduction
  • Sex steroid hormones
  • Social dominance

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrinology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems

Cite this