Olfactory contacts mediate plasticity in male aggression with variable male density
Faculty of Sciences. Biology
Journal of mammalogy. - Lawrence, Kan.
, p. 444-454
University of Antwerp
Males typically adjust their reproductive strategies based on the perceived density and relative abilities of nearby competitors. In high-density populations, repeated encounters facilitate reliable, learned associations between individuals and their relative competitive abilities. In contrast, opportunities to form such associations are limited when densities are low or in flux, increasing the risk that individuals will unintentionally engage in potentially costly interactions with higher-quality or aggressive opponents. To maximize their fitness, individuals in low-density and fluctuating populations therefore need a general way to assess their current social environment, and thus their relative competitive ability. Here, we investigate how olfactory social signals (scent marks) might perform this function. We manipulated the perceived social environment of isolated, male house mice (Mus domesticus) via their periodic contact with scent marks from 3 or 9 male conspecifics, or a control of no scents, over 15 days. We then paired them with an unknown opponent and examined how the diversity of recent scent contact mediated their behavior towards dominant or subordinate opponents. There was an overall pattern for increasing scent diversity to significantly reduce male mice's aggression (tail rattling and lunging) towards their opponents, and also their willingness to engage in reciprocal investigation. Such cautiousness was not indicative of perceived subordinance, however; the diversity of recent scent contact did not affect mice's investigation of their opponent's scents, and some measures of aggression were greater when mice faced dominant opponents. These results suggest that house mice can use scent signals to assess their current social environment in the absence of physical interactions, modifying their behavior in ways that are predicted to reduce their risks of injury when the likelihood of encountering unknown opponents increases.