Sex-role reversal in vertebrates: behavioural and endocrinological accounts

Behav Processes. 2000 Oct 5;51(1-3):135-147. doi: 10.1016/s0376-6357(00)00124-8.


Sex-role reversal occurs when females compete more intensely than males for access to mates. In this paper, we survey the occurrence of sex-role reversal in vertebrates: we focus on behavioural aspects of sex-role reversal and we examine possible endocrinological correlates of this phenomenon. The best documented cases among vertebrates of sex-role reversal occur in fish and birds. In nearly all sex-role reversed species or populations, females have higher potential reproductive rates than males. Some species in which females were previously thought to be the predominant competitors for mates (for instance seahorses and a dendrobatid frog), appear not to be sex-role reversed according to recent studies. The endocrinology of sex-role reversal has been studied in only a few species and therefore remains poorly understood. In birds, which probably have been studied the most in this respect, steroid hormones appear to follow the typical ancestral conditions (for instance no reversal of testosterone levels) in sex-role reversed species, whereas prolactin, a principal regulator of the onset and maintenance of incubation, departs from the usual avian pattern in that it is higher in males than in females. The study of sex-role reversed behaviour offers unique opportunities not only to test sexual selection theory, but also to enhance our understanding of the neuroendocrine mechanisms mediating behavioural sex differences.