Changes in behavior and brain immediate early gene expression in male threespined sticklebacks as they become fathers

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Motherhood is a period of intense behavioral and brain activity. However, we know less about the neural and molecular mechanisms associated with the demands of fatherhood. Here, we report the results of two experiments designed to track changes in behavior and brain activation associated with fatherhood in male threespined stickleback fish (Gasterosteus aculeatus), a species in which fathers are the sole providers of parental care. In experiment 1, we tested whether males' behavioral reactions to different social stimuli depends on parental status, i.e. whether they were providing parental care. Parental males visited their nest more in response to social stimuli compared to nonparental males. Rates of courtship behavior were high in non-parental males but low in parental males. In experiment 2, we used a quantitative in situ hybridization method to compare the expression of an immediate early gene (Egr-1) across the breeding cycle – from establishing a territory to caring for offspring. Egr-1 expression peaked when the activities associated with fatherhood were greatest (when they were providing care to fry), and then returned to baseline levels once offspring were independent. The medial dorsal telencephalon (basolateral amygdala), lateral part of dorsal telencephalon (hippocampus) and anterior tuberal nucleus (ventral medial hypothalamus) exhibited high levels of Egr-1 expression during the breeding cycle. These results help to define the neural circuitry associated with fatherhood in fishes, and are consistent with the hypothesis that fatherhood – like motherhood – is a period of intense behavioral and neural activity.

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