Social modulation of androgens in male birds

Gen Comp Endocrinol. 2009 Sep 1;163(1-2):149-57. doi: 10.1016/j.ygcen.2008.11.027. Epub 2008 Dec 7.


Most seasonally reproducing vertebrates show pronounced changes in testosterone levels throughout the year. The Challenge Hypothesis [Wingfield, J.C., Hegner, R.E., Dufty, A.M., Ball, G. F., 1990. The "challenge hypothesis": theoretical implications for patterns of testosterone secretion, mating systems, and breeding strategies. Am. Nat. 136, 829-846] predicts that seasonal patterns in circulating androgen concentrations vary as a function of mating system, male-male aggression and paternal care. In most comparative studies, the predictions of the Challenge Hypothesis have been tested primarily by calculating the ratio between breeding peak and breeding baseline testosterone concentrations, using this ratio as a proxy for the effect that social interactions have on testosterone levels (androgen responsiveness R). Recently, we suggested that it is preferable to separate the seasonal testosterone response (R(season)) from the androgen responsiveness to male-male interactions (R(male-male)), as these two measures do not correlate and can differ both in magnitude and direction [Goymann, W., Landys, M.M., Wingfield, J.C., 2007. Distinguishing seasonal androgen responses from male-male androgen responsiveness-revisiting the Challenge Hypothesis. Horm. Behav. 51, 463-476]. Here, I discuss several methodological and ecological factors that may explain why R(season) and R(male-male) differ. Furthermore, I describe three other kinds of androgen responsiveness, namely the androgen responsiveness of males to receptive females (R(male-female)), to non-social environmental cues (R(environment)), and the potential androgen responsiveness (R(potential)). The latter is measured before and after an injection of gonadotropin releasing hormone (GnRH), which typically leads to a maximal release of testosterone from the testes. I argue that separation of different kinds of androgen responsiveness and putting them into context with the natural history and ecology of a study species may help to better understand variations in androgen responsiveness to social and non-social environmental factors. On an ultimate level this may help to better understand the benefits and costs of increasing, or not increasing testosterone concentrations during social interactions. Proximately, this will aid in a more complete understanding of the mechanisms by which testosterone regulates behavioral traits and by which behavior feeds back on hormone levels.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Androgens / metabolism*
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal*
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Female
  • Male
  • Social Behavior*
  • Territoriality
  • Testosterone / metabolism


  • Androgens
  • Testosterone