Previous work has shown that mating induces the expression of Fos protein within the chemosensory pathways of the male Syrian hamster brain. However, it is not known if this pattern of labeling is specific to mating or the result of social interactions in general. To determine the behavioral specificity of activation within these pathways, Fos immunostaining following mating was compared to that following agonistic behavior. Both mating and agonistic behavior are dependent upon chemosensory cues and gonadal steroids (reviewed in Refs 64, 65) and areas belonging to the olfactory and vomeronasal pathways process chemosensory and hormonal information (reviewed in Ref. 48). The results of this study demonstrate both similarities and differences in brain activation patterns following these two social behaviors. Agonistic behavior increased the number of Fos-immunoreactive neurons within most subdivisions of the medial amygdala, the anteromedial and posterointermediate bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, the ventrolateral septum and the ventral premammillary nucleus of the hypothalamus in a pattern comparable to that observed after mating. This pattern of activation common to mating and agonistic behavior may reflect an increase in an animal's general state of arousal during social interactions. In contrast, although mating and agonistic behavior both activated neurons within the caudal subdivision of the medial nucleus of the amygdala, the anterodorsal level of posteromedial bed nucleus of the stria terminalis and the paraventricular and ventromedial nuclei of the hypothalamus, in these areas either the distribution and/or number of Fos-immunoreactive neurons differed. In addition, agonistic behavior selectively activated neurons within the anterolateral bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, the anterior nucleus of the hypothalamus and the dorsal periaqueductal gray, whereas mating alone activated neurons within the posteroventral level of posteromedial bed nucleus of the stria terminalis and the medial preoptic area. No differences were found between dominant and subordinate males following agonistic behavior. These observations along with results from other laboratories suggest that mating and agonistic behavior activate distinct neural circuits.