Animals communicate by exchanging signals frequently in the proximity of other conspecifics that may detect and intercept signals not directed to them. There is evidence that the presence of these bystanders modulates the signaling behavior of interacting individuals, a phenomenon that has been named audience effect. Research on the audience effect has predominantly focused on its function rather than on its proximate mechanisms. Here, we have investigated the physiological and neuromolecular correlates of the audience effect in a cichlid fish (Mozambique tilapia, Oreochromis mossambicus). A male was exposed to a territorial intrusion in the presence or absence of a female audience. Results showed that the presence of the female audience increased territorial defense, but elicited a lower androgen and cortisol response to the territorial intrusion. Furthermore, analysis of the expression of immediate early genes, used as markers of neuronal activity, in brain areas belonging to the social decision-making network (SDMN) revealed different patterns of network activity and connectivity across the different social contexts (i.e., audience × intrusion). Overall, these results suggest that socially driven plasticity in the expression of territorial behavior is accommodated in the central nervous system by rapid changes in functional connectivity between nodes of relevant networks (SDMN) rather than by localized changes of activity in specific brain nuclei.
Keywords: aggression; androgens; audience effects; cortisol; immediate early genes; social decision-making network.