Endogenous vasotocin exerts context-dependent behavioral effects in a semi-naturalistic colony environment

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Arginine vasotocin (VT), and its mammalian homologue arginine vasopressin (VP), are neuropeptides involved in the regulation of social behaviors and stress responsiveness. Previous research has demonstrated opposing effects of VT/VP on aggression in different species. However, these divergent effects were obtained in different social contexts, leading to the hypothesis that different populations of VT/VP neurons regulate behaviors in a context-dependent manner. We here use VP antagonists to block endogenous VT function in male zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) within a semi-natural, mixed-sex colony setting. We examine the role of VT in the regulation of aggression and courtship, and in pair bond formation and maintenance, over the course of three days. Although our results confirm previous findings, in that antagonist treatment reduces aggressive mate competition during an initial behavioral session during which males encounter novel females, we find that the treatment effects are completely reversed within hours of colony establishment, and the antagonist treatment instead facilitates aggression in later sessions. This reversal occurs as aggression shifts from mate competition to nest defense, but is not causally associated with pairing status per se. Instead, we hypothesize that these divergent effects reflect context-specific activation of hypothalamic and amygdalar VT neurons that exert opposing influences on aggression. Across contexts, effects were highly specific to aggression and the antagonist treatment clearly failed to alter latency to pair bond formation, pair bond stability, and courtship. However, VT may still potentially influence these behaviors via promiscuous oxytocin-like receptors, which are widely distributed in the zebra finch brain.

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