Androgens mediate the expression of many reproductive behaviors, including the elaborate displays used to navigate courtship and territorial interactions. In some vertebrates, males can produce androgen-dependent sexual behavior even when levels of testosterone are low in the bloodstream. One idea is that select tissues make their own androgens from scratch to support behavioral performance. We first studied this phenomenon in the skeletal muscles that actuate elaborate sociosexual displays in downy woodpeckers and two songbirds. We show that the woodpecker display muscle maintains elevated testosterone when the testes are regressed in the non-breeding season. Both the display muscles of woodpeckers, as well as the display muscles in the avian vocal organ (syrinx) of songbirds, express all transporters and enzymes necessary to convert cholesterol into bioactive androgens locally. In a final analysis, we broadened our study by looking for these same transporters and enzymes in mammalian muscles that operate at different speeds. Using RNA-seq data, we found that the capacity for de novo synthesis is only present in 'superfast' extraocular muscle. Together, our results suggest that skeletal muscle specialized to generate extraordinary twitch times and/or extremely rapid contractile speeds may depend on androgenic hormones produced locally within the muscle itself. Our study therefore uncovers an important dimension of androgenic regulation of behavior.
Keywords: Androgens; Display; Sexual selection; Skeletal muscle; Steroid synthesis.
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