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Breeding status and social environment differentially affect the expression of sex steroid receptor and aromatase mRNA in the brain of female Damaraland mole-rats

Cornelia Voigt1*, Manfred Gahr2, Stefan Leitner2, Heike Lutermann1 and Nigel Bennett1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Zoology and Entomology, University of Pretoria, 0028 Pretoria, South Africa

2 Department of Behavioural Neurobiology, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, D-82319 Seewiesen, Germany

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Frontiers in Zoology 2014, 11:38  doi:10.1186/1742-9994-11-38

Published: 8 May 2014



The Damaraland mole-rat (Fukomys damarensis) is a eusocial, subterranean mammal, which exhibits an extreme reproductive skew with a single female (queen) monopolizing reproduction in each colony. Non-reproductive females in the presence of the queen are physiologically suppressed to the extent that they are anovulatory. This blockade is thought to be caused by a disruption in the normal gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) secretion from the hypothalamus. In order to understand the underlying physiological mechanisms of reproductive suppression in subordinate females we studied the expression of steroid hormone receptors and the androgen-converting enzyme aromatase in forebrain regions involved in the control of reproductive behaviour in female breeders and non-breeders from intact colonies. Additionally, we included in our analysis females that experienced the release from social suppression by being removed from the presence of the queen.


We found expression of androgen receptor, estrogen receptor α and aromatase in several forebrain regions of female Damaraland mole-rats. Their distribution matches previous findings in other mammals. Quantification of the hybridisation signal revealed that queens had increased expression of androgen receptors compared to non-breeders and removed non-breeders in most brain regions examined, which include the medial preoptic area (MPOA), the principal nucleus of the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BSTp), the ventromedial nucleus of the hypothalamus (VMH), the arcuate nucleus (ARC) and the medial amygdala (MeA). Furthermore, breeders had increased estrogen receptor α expression in the anteroventral periventricular nucleus (AVPV) and in the MeA, while aromatase expression in the AVPV was significantly reduced compared to non-breeders. Absence of social suppression was associated with increased androgen receptor expression in the ARC, increased estrogen receptor α expression in the MeA and BSTp and reduced aromatase expression in the AVPV.


This study shows that social suppression and breeding differentially affect the neuroendocrine phenotype of female Damaraland mole-rats. The differential expression pattern of estrogen receptor α and aromatase in the AVPV between breeders and non-breeders supports the view that this region plays an important role in mediating the physiological suppression in subordinate females.

Androgen receptor; Estrogen receptor alpha; Aromatase; In situ hybridization; Fukomys damarensis; Social status