Testosterone production and social environment vary with breeding stage in a competitive female songbird

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In many vertebrates, males increase circulating testosterone (T) levels in response to seasonal and social changes in competition. Females are also capable of producing and responding to T, but the full extent to which they can elevate T across life history stages remains unclear. Here we investigated T production during various breeding stages in female tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor), which face intense competition for nesting sites. We performed GnRH and saline injections and compared changes in T levels 30min before and after injection. We found that GnRH-injected females showed the greatest increases in T during territory establishment and pre-laying stages, whereas saline controls dramatically decreased T production during this time. We also observed elevated rates of conspecific aggression during these early stages of breeding. During incubation and provisioning, however, T levels and T production capabilities declined. Given that high T can disrupt maternal care, an inability to elevate T levels in later breeding stages may be adaptive. Our results highlight the importance of saline controls for contextualizing T production capabilities, and they also suggest that social modulation of T is a potential mechanism by which females may respond to competition, but only during the period of time when competition is most intense. These findings have broad implications for understanding how females can respond to their social environment and how selection may have shaped these hormone-behavior interactions.HIGHLIGHTSWe performed GnRH challenges on female tree swallows at multiple breeding stages.In territory establishment and nest-building, GnRH nearly doubles female T levels.T in saline controls drops by nearly half during these same early breeding stages.During parental stages, females do not elevate T and rates of aggression decline.Social modulation of T could be possible in early-season, competitive females.

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