Endocrine Correlates of Mate Choice and Promiscuity in Females of a Socially Monogamous Avian Mating System with Alternative Male Reproductive Phenotypes
At the time of publication, Douglas G. Barron was affiliated with University of South Florida, Tampa.
While our understanding of male reproductive strategies is informed by extensive investigations into endocrine mechanisms, the proximate mechanisms by which females compete for mates and adjust reproduction to social environment remains enigmatic. We set out to uncover endocrine correlates of mate choice, social environment, and reproductive investment in female red-backed fairy-wrens Malurus melanocephalus. In this socially monogamous, yet highly sexually promiscuous species, females experience discrete variation in the phenotype of their mates, which vary in both plumage signals and level of paternal care, and in the composition of their breeding groups, which consist of either the pair alone or with an additional cooperative auxiliary; female investment varies according to these social parameters. We found that androgen, estrogen, and glucorticoid levels varied with reproductive stage, with highest androgen and estrogen concentrations during nest construction and highest corticosterone concentrations during the pre-breeding stage. These stage-dependent patterns did not vary with male phenotype or auxiliary presence, though androgen levels during pre-breeding mate selection were lower in females obtaining red/black mates than those obtaining brown mates. We found no evidence that androgen, estrogen, or corticosterone levels during the fertile period were related to extra-pair young (EPY) frequency. This study demonstrates clear changes in steroid levels with reproductive stage, though it found little support for variation with social environment. We suggest hormonal responsiveness to social factors may be physiologically constrained in ways that are bypassed through exogenous hormone manipulations.