The effects of naloxone on courtship and pairing behaviour in male and female zebra finches: the importance of testing mechanisms using multiple paradigms

in Behaviour
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Opioids are implicated in social attachments, but their role in avian pair bonds is not well understood. The present study tested the effects of naloxone, an opioid antagonist, on pairing using both a forced-choice and a mixed-sex aviary paradigm. First, three doses of naloxone were systemically administered in males using a repeated measures forced-choice design, partner preference formation was tested on the second day. Males treated with 20 mg/kg sang less undirected song. Males treated with 10 mg/kg of naloxone sang less to the familiar partner than when treated with saline and were less likely to form a partner preference than were other treatments. In females, 10 mg/kg of naloxone in a forced-choice paradigm increased preference for the unfamiliar over the familiar male. Finally, males and females were administered either naloxone (10 mg/kg) or saline in a mixed-sex aviary. In females, naloxone increased pairing behaviours, but had no other effects in either sex. Our findings suggest that the effects of naloxone on pairing-related behaviours are context-dependent; male–male competition may decrease the effects of naloxone on male song and a choice of mates may increase affiliation in females in a semi-naturalistic paradigm, and increase preferences for an unfamiliar partner in a forced-choice paradigm. Our findings highlight the importance of using multiple paradigms to test mechanisms of behaviour. These findings contribute to our understanding of the mechanisms of monogamous relationships and suggest that opioids play a role in male courtship, female affiliation and partner preferences in both sexes of zebra finches, but that context is important.



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  • The effects of 3 different doses of naloxone on directed and undirected singing in male zebra finches tested in a repeated measures design. Significant difference, p<0.05.

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  • The effects of 3 different doses of naloxone on directed singing to a familiar and an unfamiliar female in male zebra finches tested in a repeated measures design. Significant difference, p<0.05.

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  • The effects of 3 different doses of naloxone on male partner preferences in a forced-choice paradigm. Significant difference from chance, p<0.05.

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  • The effects of naloxone treatment on female partner preferences in a forced-choice paradigm. Each female was tested twice, and effects did not differ between tests, so each test was considered a separate data point. Significant difference from chance, p<0.05.

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  • The effects of naloxone treatment on clumping behaviour in female and male zebra finches. Significant difference, p<0.05.

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