Sex differences in the acoustic features of social play-induced 50-kHz ultrasonic vocalizations: A detailed spectrographic analysis in wild-type Sprague-Dawley and Cacna1c haploinsufficient rats

Dev Psychobiol. 2021 Mar;63(2):262-276. doi: 10.1002/dev.21998. Epub 2020 Jun 7.


Sexual dimorphisms are widespread in the animal kingdom. At the behavioral level, there is evidence for sex differences in social play behavior. In rats, males typically engage more in rough-and-tumble play than females. One prominent component of the rough-and-tumble play repertoire in rats is the emission of 50-kHz ultrasonic vocalizations (USV). Such 50-kHz USV reflect the rewarding nature of play and serve as socioaffective signals. Here, we provide evidence for sexual dimorphisms within rough-and-tumble play-induced 50-kHz USV in juvenile rats. Specifically, females displayed reduced 50-kHz USV emission during playful interactions. This reduction was associated with changes in 50-kHz USV emission rates and subtype profiles during specific rough-and-tumble components, i.e., pinning, wrestling, and chasing, as well as differences in acoustic parameters. Interestingly, sex differences were modulated by Cacna1c, a gene strongly implicated in major neuropsychiatric disorders, often characterized by prominent sex biases, most notably autism. Specifically, Cacna1c haploinsufficiency affected the emission of 50-kHz USV during rough-and-tumble play in female rats and we provide evidence supporting the notion that such effects of Cacna1c haploinsufficiency are driven by male-typical features of 50-kHz USV emission. This is in line with the hypermasculinized social play repertoire previously observed in juvenile Cacna1c haploinsufficient females.

Keywords: Cav1.2; calcium; rats; rough-and-tumble play; sex differences; social behavior; ultrasonic vocalizations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't