Stress axis regulation during social ascension in a group-living cichlid fish
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Animals living in groups often form social hierarchies, with characteristic behaviours and physiologies associated with rank. However, when social opportunities arise and a subordinate ascends into a dominant position, quick adjustments are necessary to secure this position. Such periods of social transition are typically associated with elevated glucocorticoid production, but the precise regulation of the stress axis during these occasions is not well understood. Using the group-living cichlid, Neolamprologus pulcher, the effects of social ascension on the stress axis were assessed. Ascenders rapidly filled experimentally created vacancies, adopting a dominant behavioural phenotype within 72 h-elevating aggression, activity, and workload, while receiving high rates of affiliative behaviours from their group members. Despite assuming behavioural dominance within their groups, ascenders displayed higher cortisol levels than dominants three days post-ascension. Additionally, compared to subordinates, ascenders had increased transcript abundance of steroidogenic acute regulatory protein (star) and cytochrome p450 side-chain cleavage enzyme (p450scc) in the head kidney, indicating activation of the stress axis. Cortisol levels were lowest in ascenders that displayed low rates of aggression, potentially reflecting the reestablishment of social stability in these groups. Increased transcript abundance of both glucocorticoid receptors (gr1 and gr2) in the brain's preoptic area (POA) of ascenders compared to dominants suggested an enhanced capacity for cortisol regulation via negative feedback. Our results reveal a regulatory cascade of behavioural and physiological interactions and highlight the importance of investigating the underlying mechanisms regulating the stress axis.
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