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Hormones and behavior

Heightened aggression and winning contests increase corticosterone but decrease testosterone in male Australian water dragons.


PMID 24907453

Abstract

Water dragons (Intellegama [Physignathus] lesueurii) are large (to >1m) agamid lizards from eastern Australia. Males are fiercely combative; holding a territory requires incessant displays and aggression against other males. If a dominant male is absent, injured or fatigued, another male soon takes over his territory. Our sampling of blood from free-ranging adult males showed that baseline levels of both testosterone and corticosterone were not related to a male's social tactic (territorial versus non-territorial), or his frequency of advertisement display, aggression, or courtship behavior. Even when we elicited intense aggression by non-territorial males (by temporarily removing territory owners), testosterone did not increase with the higher levels of aggression that ensued. Indeed, testosterone levels decreased in males that won contests. In contrast, male corticosterone levels increased with the heightened aggression during unsettled conditions, and were higher in males that won contests. High chronic male-male competition in this dense population may favor high testosterone levels in all adult males to facilitate advertisement and patrol activities required for territory maintenance (by dominant animals), and to maintain readiness for territory take-overs (in non-territorial animals). Corticosterone levels increased in response to intense aggression during socially unstable conditions, and were higher in contest winners than losers. A positive correlation between the two hormones during socially unstable conditions suggests that the high stress of contests decreased androgen production. The persistent intense competition in this population appears to exact a high physiological cost, which together with our observation that males sometimes lose their territories to challengers may indicate cycling between these two tactics to manage long-term energetic costs.

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