Increased exposure to yolk testosterone has feminizing effects in chickens, Gallus gallus domesticus
Competing for food by altricial and semiprecocial bird nestlings is a behaviour well known for its sensitivity to maternal androgens during prenatal development. Whether a similar effect is present in precocial species that do not beg is less well known. We therefore increased yolk testosterone levels within the physiological range at the onset of incubation to study its effects on food competition behaviour in the domestic chicken, Gallus gallus domesticus. We found an increase in competitiveness in testosterone-treated male domestic chicks, raising their level to that of the females. This is in line with the decrease in circulating plasma levels of males in the direction of the levels in females, and the overall decrease in androgen receptor densities after prenatal treatment as found previously. Hormones are known to have long-lasting organizing effects on behaviour and to affect sexual differentiation in vertebrates. Although research into hormone-mediated maternal effects has been productive, only a few studies describe (the ambiguous) effects into adulthood. Therefore we followed our animals into adulthood and recorded androgen-dependent social behaviour and secondary sexual characteristics, body mass and circulating plasma testosterone levels and checked whether these variables were treatment dependent. Treatment had a near significant effect on comb colour (both brightness and chroma). Again treatment caused a shift towards a more female-like phenotype. This suggests that, in contrast to earlier suggestions, maternal androgens may interact with (but not disrupt) sexual differentiation of brain and behaviour and the development of secondary sexual characteristics. âº We studied effects of increased prenatal testosterone (T) exposure in the chicken. âº T increased competitiveness in males up to the level of the female chicks. âº No effect of T on social rank, body mass or circulating plasma testosterone. âº Comb colour but not comb size tended to be feminized by testosterone. âº Maternal androgens interact with the process of sexual differentiation.