Journal Article

Testing the role of testosterone versus estrogens in mediating reproductive transitions in female rhesus macaques

Lee, D. S., Knittel, T., Deschner, T., Heistermann, M., Higham, J. P.
Hormones and Behavior, 139:105123, 1–11 (2022)


In male vertebrates, testosterone is generally known to coordinate reproductive trade-offs, in part by promoting the transition to the next reproduction at the expense of current parental care. The role of testosterone in reproductive transitions has been little tested in female vertebrates, especially in mammals. The present study sought to fill this gap, by first undertaking an experimental study, in which we identified DHT, androstenediol, and in particular etiocholanolone, as fecal androgen metabolites which reflect serum testosterone concentration in female rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta). Using concentrations of fecal etiocholanolone as proxy for circulating testosterone, we then conducted a field study on 46 free-ranging rhesus macaques of Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico, to test if testosterone mediates the trade-off between reproductive transition (a higher chance of reproducing in the next year) and current reproduction (providing more care to current offspring). While the evidence for testosterone was weak, the testing of fecal immunoreactive estrogen metabolites suggested a potential role of estrogen in reproductive trade-offs. We found large individual differences in fecal etiocholanolone concentrations during the early postpartum period that were unexplained even after accounting for sociodemographic factors such as age and dominance rank. Further investigation is needed to understand this variation. Our study suggests that the actions of testosterone in females may not have evolved to fulfil the same role in primate reproductive transitions as it does in males, and we encourage more studies to consider the function of testosterone in reproductive behaviors and life history transitions in females of mammalian taxa.

Keywords: animal studies, estrogens, evolution, fertility, testosterone
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