Alongside the development of sexual characteristics and reproductive competence, adolescents undergo marked cognitive, social, and emotional development . A fundamental question is whether these changes are triggered by activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis at puberty (puberty dependent) or whether they occur independently of HPG activation (puberty independent). Disentangling puberty-dependent from puberty-independent mechanisms is difficult because puberty and adolescence typically proceed concurrently. Here, we test a new approach that leverages natural adaptations of a seasonally breeding species to dissociate pubertal status from chronological age. Siberian hamsters (Phodopus sungorus) reared in a long, summer-like day length (LD) exhibit rapid pubertal development, whereas those reared in a short, winter-like day length (SD) delay puberty by several months to synchronize breeding with the following spring [2, 3]. We tested whether the SD-induced delay in puberty delays the peri-adolescent decline in juvenile social play and the rise in aggression that characterizes adolescent social development in many species [4-6] and compared the results to those obtained after prepubertal gonadectomy. Neither SD rearing nor prepubertal gonadectomy altered the age at which hamsters transitioned from play to aggression; SD-reared hamsters completed this transition prior to puberty. SD rearing and prepubertal gonadectomy, however, increased levels of play in male and female juveniles, implicating a previously unknown role for prepubertal gonadal hormones in juvenile social behavior. Levels of aggression were also impacted (decreased) in SD-reared and gonadectomized males. These data demonstrate that puberty-independent mechanisms regulate the timing of adolescent social development, while prepubertal and adult gonadal hormones modulate levels of age-appropriate social behaviors.
Keywords: Siberian hamster; aggression; gonadal hormones; social play.
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