Postprint version. Published in Hormones and Behavior, Volume 50, Issue 2, August 1, 2006, pages 183-193.
NOTE: At the time of publication, the author Sean C. Lema was not yet affiliated with Cal Poly.
Behavioral differences can evolve rapidly in allopatry, but little is known about the neural bases of such changes. Allopatric populations of Amargosa pupfish (Cyprinodon nevadensis) vary in aggression and courtship behaviors in the wild. Two of these wild populations were recently found to differ in brain expression of arginine vasotocin (AVT)—a peptide hormone shown previously to modulate aggression in pupfish. These populations have been isolated for less than 4000 years, so it remained unclear whether the differences in behavior and neural AVT phenotype were evolved changes or plastic responses to ecologically dissimilar habitats. Here, I tested whether these population differences have a genetic basis by examining how aggressive behavior and neural AVT phenotype responded to ecologically relevant variation in salinity (0.4 ppt or 3 ppt) and temperature (stable or daily fluctuating). Pupfish from Big Spring were more aggressive than pupfish from the Amargosa River when bred and reared under common laboratory conditions. Morphometric analysis of preoptic AVT immunoreactivity showed that the populations differed in how the AVT system responded to salinity and temperature conditions, and revealed that this plasticity differed between parvocellular and magnocellular AVT neuron groups. Both populations also showed relationships between neural AVT phenotype and aggression in the rearing environment, although populations differed in how aggression related to variation in magnocellular AVT neuron size. Together, these results demonstrate that the pupfish populations have diverged in how physical and social conditions affect the AVT system, and provide evidence that the AVT system can evolve quickly to ecologically dissimilar environments.