Subordinate male cichlids retain reproductive competence during social suppression

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Subordinate males, which are excluded from reproduction often save energy by reducing their investment in sperm production. However, if their position in a dominance hierarchy changes suddenly they should also rapidly attain fertilization capability. Here, we asked how social suppression and ascension to dominance influences sperm quality, spermatogenesis and reproductive competence in the cichlid Astatotilapia burtoni, where reproduction is tightly coupled to social status. Dominant territorial (T) males are reproductively active while subordinate non-territorial (NT) males are suppressed, but given the opportunity, NT males will perform dominance behaviours within minutes and attain T male testes size within days. Using the thymidine analogue 5-bromo-2-deoxyuridine (BrdU) to label germ cell proliferation, we found that the spermatogenic cycle takes approximately 11-12 days, and social status had no effect on proliferation, suggesting that spermatogenesis continues during reproductive suppression. Although sperm velocity did not differ among social states, NT males had reduced sperm motility. Remarkably, males ascending in status showed sperm motility equivalent to T males within 24 h. Males also successfully reproduced within hours of social opportunity, despite four to five weeks of suppression and reduced testis size. Our data suggest that NT males maintain reproductive potential during suppression possibly as a strategy to rapidly improve reproductive fitness upon social opportunity. © 2011 The Royal Society.

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Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

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