Social competition affects electric signal plasticity and steroid levels in the gymnotiform fish Brachyhypopomus gauderio

Horm Behav. 2009 Oct;56(4):399-409. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2009.07.009. Epub 2009 Aug 6.


Sexually-selected communication signals can be used by competing males to settle contests without incurring the costs of fighting. Steroid regulation of these signals can render them as reliable indicators of a male's physiological state. We investigated how plasticity in electrocommunication signals is driven by social competition for mates, mediated by steroid hormones, and subject to the effects of past social experience. We measured the electric waveform's amplitude and duration and steroid hormone levels of male gymnotiform electric fish (Brachyhypopomus gauderio) following week-long periods of social isolation, and low or high social competition. To quantify the effect of social history on the modulation of the electric signal, six groups of six males experienced all three social conditions but in different order. We found that males differentially modulate their electric signals depending on the order they experienced these conditions. Thus, past social interactions affect both present and future social electric signals. Cortisol levels and the amplitude of the electric signal appeared to track the intensity of competition, while androgen levels and the duration of the electric signal only responded to the presence (low and high competition) or absence (isolation) of a social environment (low and high androgens respectively). In addition, cortisol levels were related to the body size of the males at high social competition. Taken together, these findings suggest that the capacity of males to modulate their signals in response to social competition is regulated by steroids.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Analysis of Variance
  • Androgens / blood
  • Androgens / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Body Size / physiology
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology
  • Competitive Behavior / physiology*
  • Electric Organ / physiology*
  • Electricity
  • Gymnotiformes / physiology*
  • Hydrocortisone / blood
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism
  • Male
  • Random Allocation
  • Regression Analysis
  • Social Isolation
  • Steroids / blood
  • Steroids / metabolism*
  • Testosterone / analogs & derivatives
  • Testosterone / blood
  • Testosterone / metabolism


  • Androgens
  • Steroids
  • Testosterone
  • 11-ketotestosterone
  • Hydrocortisone