Plasticity of the mate choice mind: courtship evokes choice-like brain responses in females from a coercive mating system

Genes Brain Behav. 2014 Apr;13(4):365-75. doi: 10.1111/gbb.12124. Epub 2014 Mar 19.


Female mate choice is fundamental to sexual selection, and determining molecular underpinnings of female preference variation is important for understanding mating character evolution. Previously it was shown that whole-brain expression of a synaptic plasticity marker, neuroserpin, positively correlates with mating bias in the female choice poeciliid, Xiphophorus nigrensis, when exposed to conspecific courting males, whereas this relationship is reversed in Gambusia affinis, a mate coercive poeciliid with no courting males. Here we explore whether species-level differences in female behavioral and brain molecular responses represent 'canalized' or 'plastic' traits. We expose female G. affinis to conspecific males and females, as well as coercive and courting male Poecilia latipinna, for preference assays followed by whole-brain gene expression analyses of neuroserpin, egr-1 and early B. We find positive correlations between gene expression and female preference strength during exposure to courting heterospecific males, but a reversed pattern following exposure to coercive heterospecific males. This suggests that the neuromolecular processes associated with female preference behavior are plastic and responsive to different male phenotypes (courting or coercive) rather than a canalized response linked to mating system. Further, we propose that female behavioral plasticity may involve learning because female association patterns shifted with experience. Compared to younger females, we found larger, more experienced females spend less time near coercive males but associate more with males in the presence of courters. We thus suggest a conserved learning-based neuromolecular process underlying the diversity of female mate preference across the mate choice and coercion-driven mating systems.

Keywords: Gambusia affinis; Poecilia latipinna; Xiphophorus nigrensis; early B; egr-1; female preference; learning; neuroserpin; phenotypic plasticity; synaptic plasticity.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Animals
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Courtship*
  • Cyprinodontiformes / metabolism
  • Cyprinodontiformes / physiology*
  • Early Growth Response Protein 1 / genetics
  • Early Growth Response Protein 1 / metabolism
  • Female
  • Fish Proteins / genetics
  • Fish Proteins / metabolism
  • Learning
  • Male
  • Mating Preference, Animal*
  • Neuronal Plasticity*
  • Neuropeptides / genetics
  • Neuropeptides / metabolism
  • Neuroserpin
  • Poecilia / metabolism
  • Poecilia / physiology*
  • Serpins / genetics
  • Serpins / metabolism
  • Sex Factors
  • Species Specificity


  • Early Growth Response Protein 1
  • Fish Proteins
  • Neuropeptides
  • Serpins