Social environment and steroid hormones affect species and sex differences in immune function among voles

Sabra L. Klein, Joyce E. Hairston, A. Courtney Devries, Randy J. Nelson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

70 Scopus citations


Testosterone has bipotential effects on male fitness; that is, it both suppresses immune function and maintains characteristics important for reproductive success. Presumably, these effects of testosterone may be more pronounced among polygynous species because testosterone concentrations are generally higher among polygynous than monogamous males. The present study examined sex and species differences in cell-mediated immunity among four arvicoline rodents. The role of mating system and sex steroids in sex differences in immune function was examined in individually housed polygynous meadow (Microtus pennsylvanicus) and montane (M. montanus) voles and monogamous prairie (M. ochrogaster) and pine (M. pinetorum) voles in Experiment 1. No sex differences in splenocyte proliferation were observed among the four species and circulating testosterone concentrations did not correlate with immune function of individuals within each species. The contribution of social isolation to these results was examined in Experiment 2, in which meadow and prairie voles were housed individually, or with same- or opposite-sex conspecifics in either pairs or groups of four per cage for 28 days. Overall, prairie voles exhibited more robust immune responses than meadow voles when housed in pairs or in same-sex groups. Sex differences in immune function were also apparent; male meadow voles had higher immune responses than female conspecifics when housed in pairs, whereas female prairie voles had higher responses than male conspecifics when housed in same-sex pairs. Circulating sex steroid hormones and corticosterone appear to mediate some, but not all, of the changes in immune function evoked by differential housing conditions. Taken together, these results suggest that social factors have significant effects on immunity and should be considered in studies of sex differences in immunity at both proximate and ultimate levels.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)30-39
Number of pages10
JournalHormones and Behavior
Issue number1
StatePublished - Aug 1997

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrinology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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