Sexual dimorphisms in the vocal control system of a teleost fish: morphology of physiologically identified neurons

J Neurobiol. 1990 Dec;21(8):1155-68. doi: 10.1002/neu.480210802.


In one species of vocalizing (sonic) fish, the midshipman (Porichthys notatus), there are two classes of sexually mature males--Types I and II--distinguished by a number of traits including body size, gonad size, and reproductive tactic. The larger Type-I males (unlike Type-II males and females) build nests, guard eggs, and generate several types of vocalizations. Sound production by Type-I males is paralleled by a proportionate increase of 600% in their sonic muscle mass. The motor volley from ventral occipital roots innervating the sonic muscles establishes their contraction rate and, in turn, the fundamental frequency of emitted sounds. Electrical stimulation of the midbrain in every male and female elicited a rhythmic sonic discharge as recorded in the occipital roots; however, the fundamental frequency was slightly, but significantly, higher (20%) in Type-I males. Intracellular recording from identified motoneurons and presumed presynaptic "pacemaker" neurons showed their synaptic and action potentials had the same frequency as that of the nerve volley in every male and female. Reconstructions of physiologically identified motoneurons and pacemaker neurons following intracellular horseradish-peroxidase (HRP) filling showed their somata and dendrites to be 100-300% larger in Type-I males. These data unambiguously show that the size of a target muscle is correlated with the size of both the respective motoneurons and their presynaptic afferent neurons. As discussed, this implies that the dramatic increase in neuron size in the sonic motor system of Type-I males is causally dependent upon expansion of the sonic muscle. It is further likely that the more modest sex difference in the rhythmic central discharge is established by the intrinsic membrane properties of sonic neurons. These results also corroborate, at a number of behavioral, morphological, and neurophysiological levels, that the sonic motor system of "sneak spawning" Type-II males is similar to that of females. Thus, unlike the vocalizing Type-I males, sexual differentiation of the reproductive system in Type-II males is not linked to concomitant changes in the neurophysiological and morphological features of the sonic motor circuit.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / cytology*
  • Brain / physiology
  • Fishes / anatomy & histology*
  • Fishes / physiology
  • Horseradish Peroxidase
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Motor Neurons / physiology
  • Motor Neurons / ultrastructure
  • Muscles / innervation
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Neurons / ultrastructure*
  • Neurons, Afferent / ultrastructure
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Synapses / ultrastructure
  • Vocalization, Animal / physiology*


  • Horseradish Peroxidase