Behavioral evolution relies on genetic changes, yet few behaviors can be traced to specific genetic sequences in vertebrates. Here we provide experimental evidence showing that differentiation of a single gene has contributed to the evolution of divergent behavioral phenotypes in the white-throated sparrow, a common backyard songbird. In this species, a series of chromosomal inversions has formed a supergene that segregates with an aggressive phenotype. The supergene has captured ESR1, the gene that encodes estrogen receptor α (ERα); as a result, this gene is accumulating changes that now distinguish the supergene allele from the standard allele. Our results show that in birds of the more aggressive phenotype, ERα knockdown caused a phenotypic change to that of the less aggressive phenotype. We next showed that in a free-living population, aggression is predicted by allelic imbalance favoring the supergene allele. Finally, we identified cis-regulatory features, both genetic and epigenetic, that explain the allelic imbalance. This work provides a rare illustration of how genotypic divergence has led to behavioral phenotypic divergence in a vertebrate.
Keywords: chromosomal inversion; social behavior; songbird.