Sexual dimorphism in striatal dopaminergic responses promotes monogamy in social songbirds

Kirill Tokarev, Julia Hyland Bruno, Iva Ljubičić, Paresh J. Kothari, Santosh A. Helekar, Ofer Tchernichovski, Henning U. Voss

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


In many songbird species, males sing to attract females and repel rivals. How can gregarious, non-territorial songbirds such as zebra finches, where females have access to numerous males, sustain monogamy? We found that the dopaminergic reward circuitry of zebra finches can simultaneously promote social cohesion and breeding boundaries. Surprisingly, in unmated males but not in females, striatal dopamine neurotransmission was elevated after hearing songs. Behaviorally too, unmated males but not females persistently exchanged mild punishments in return for songs. Song reinforcement diminished when dopamine receptors were blocked. In females, we observed song reinforcement exclusively to the mate’s song, although their striatal dopamine neurotransmission was only slightly elevated. These findings suggest that song-triggered dopaminergic activation serves a dual function in social songbirds: as low-threshold social reinforcement in males and as ultra-selective sexual reinforcement in females. Co-evolution of sexually dimorphic reinforcement systems can explain the coexistence of gregariousness and monogamy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere25819
StatePublished - Aug 11 2017
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Neuroscience
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Immunology and Microbiology


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