Recent experience modulates forebrain gene-expression in response to mate-choice cues in European starlings

Keith W. Sockman, Timothy Q. Gentner, Gregory F. Ball

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

100 Scopus citations


Mate-choice decisions can be experience dependent, but we know little about how the brain processes stimuli that release such decisions. Female European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) prefer males with long-bout songs over males with short-bout songs, and show higher expression of the immediate early gene (IEG) ZENK in the auditory forebrain when exposed to long-bout songs than when exposed to short-bout songs. We exposed female starlings to a short-day photoperiod for one of three durations and then, on an increased photophase, exposed them to one week of long-bout or short-bout song experience. We then examined their IEG response to novel long-bout versus novel short-bout songs by quantifying ZENK protein in two song-processing areas: the caudo-medial hyperstriatum ventrale and the caudo-medial neostriatum. ZENK expression in both areas increased with tenure on short-day photoperiods, suggesting that short days sensitize females to song. The ZENK response bias toward long-bout songs was greater in females with long-bout experience than in females with short-bout experience, indicating that the forebrain response bias toward a preferred trait depends on recent experience with that category of trait. This surprising level of neuroplasticity is immediately relevant to the natural history and fitness of the organism, and may underlie a mechanism for optimizing mate-choice criteria amidst locally variable distributions of secondary sexual characteristics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2479-2485
Number of pages7
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1508
StatePublished - Dec 7 2002
Externally publishedYes


  • Bird song
  • Female choice
  • Immediate early gene
  • Neuroplasticity
  • Sexual selection
  • Sturnus vulgaris

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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