Hormones are dynamic signaling molecules that influence gene activity and phenotype, and they are thus thought to play a central role in phenotypic evolution. In vertebrates, many fitness-related traits are mediated by the hormone testosterone (T), but the mechanisms by which T levels evolve are unclear. Here, we summarize a series of studies that advance our understanding of these mechanisms by comparing males from two subspecies of dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) that differ in aggression, body size, and ornamentation. We first review our research demonstrating population differences in the time-course of T production, as well as findings that point to the gonad as a major source of this variation. In a common garden, the subspecies do not differ in pituitary output of luteinizing hormone, but males from the more androgenized subspecies have greater gonadal gene expression for specific steroidogenic enzymes, and they may be less sensitive to feedback along the hypothalamo-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis. Furthermore, we present new data from a common garden study demonstrating that the populations do not differ in gonadal sensitivity to gonadotropin-inhibitory hormone (i.e., GnIH receptor mRNA abundance), but the more androgenized subspecies expresses less gonadal mRNA for glucocorticoid receptor and mineralocorticoid receptor, suggesting altered cross-talk between the hypothalamo-pituitary-gonadal and -adrenal axes as another mechanism by which these subspecies have diverged in T production. These findings highlight the diversity of mechanisms that may generate functional variation in T and influence hormone-mediated phenotypic evolution.
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