Sexual arousal, is it for mammals only?

Gregory F. Ball, Jacques Balthazart

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Sexual arousal has many dimensions and has consequently been defined in various ways. In humans, sexual arousal can be assessed based in part on verbal communication. In male non-human mammalian species, it has been argued that arousal can only be definitively inferred if the subject exhibits a penile erection in a sexual context. In non-mammalian species that lack an intromittent organ, as is the case for most avian species, the question of how to assess sexual arousal has not been thoroughly addressed. Based on studies performed in male Japanese quail, we argue that several behavioral or physiological characteristics provide suitable measures of sexual arousal in birds and probably also in other tetrapods. These indices include, the performance of appetitive sexual behavior in anticipation of copulation (although anticipation and arousal are not synonymous), the activation of specific brain area as identified by the detection of the expression of immediate early genes (fos, egr-1) or by 2-deoxygucose quantitative autoradiography, and above all, by the release of dopamine in the medial preoptic area as measured by in vivo dialysis. Based on these criteria, it is possible to assess in birds sexual arousal in its broadest sense but meeting the more restrictive definition of arousal proposed for male mammals (erection in an explicit sexual context) is and will probably remain impossible in birds until refinement of in vivo imaging techniques such fMRI allow us to match in different species, with and without an intromittent organ, the brain areas that are activated in the presence of specific stimuli.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)645-655
Number of pages11
JournalHormones and Behavior
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • Appetitive sexual behavior
  • Consummatory sexual behavior
  • Dopamine
  • Japanese quail
  • Sexual behavior
  • Sexual learning
  • Sexual motivation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrinology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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