Development of Sexual Partner Preference in the Zebra Finch: A Socially Monogamous, Pair-Bonding Animal

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Zebra finches are group living socially monogamous birds that pair for life. Partner preference is strongly sexually differentiated: males prefer to pair with females and females prefer to pair with males. Where do these preferences come from? What occurs during development that produces adult birds that pair with the opposite sex? There is surprisingly little animal research that addresses such questions, especially in species that form pair-bonds. Our research program focuses on two processes that may be involved in the development of adult sexual-partner preference: (1) early (possibly organizational) hormone actions and (2) social experience. Females treated with estradiol or fadrozole (an estrogen synthesis inhibitor) as nestlings or embryos showed masculinized sexual-partner preference as adults, preferring to pair with other females even when potential male partners were available. Removal of adult males from breeding cages, so that young birds were not exposed to males or to male–female pairs during development, eliminated sex-typical partner preferences; these birds were equally interested in both sexes and were more likely than controls to pair with a same-sex partner. These experiments provide insights into the development of sexual-partner preference that may be applicable to other group living pair-bonding animals with biparental care. They also contribute to the foundation of animal research that is necessary for a biological approach to understanding the pair-bonding component of human sexual orientation.

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