Time and Sex in the Male Mouse: Temporal Regulation of Infanticide and Parental Behavior
AbstractInfanticide is a violent but successful reproductive strategy found in many mammals, particularly rodents. In male house mice (Mus domesticus and M. musculus) the act of ejaculation provides a reliable neural signal for timing the birth of their offspring. However, a unique chronobiological aspect of this phenomenon is the extraordinary temporal latency that can occur between the stimulus (coital ejaculation) and its adaptive neural response (male mice cease killing pups and behave parentally toward them instead). Specifically, the inhibition of infanticide is often time delayed for many days after a male ejaculates, but virtually always occurs before or around the time his own sired offspring would be born 18-20 days later. Furthermore, infanticide spontaneously reemerges 50-60 days after mating. In CF-1 stock male mice this entire behavioral sequence is synchronized with the female's reproductive cycle, and occurs even in the total absence of social cues or changes in pituitary or gonadal hormones after mating. When entrained and mated at 22 h (lightdark 11:11) or 27 h (lightdark 13.5:13.5) T-cycles, photoperiodic cues appeared to synchronize this dramatic shift in behavior, because a sudden transition from pup killing to parenting was matched with the number of light/dark cycles experienced after ejaculation rather than the amount of real time experienced, suggesting a circadian timing link. Housing in constant light accelerated the postmating transition to parenting, whereas constant dark significantly delayed the transition to parenting, but still occurred by 3 weeks after mating. Most males tend to oscillate between infanticide and parental behavior for several days before locking in to constant parenting, regardless of lighting conditions. Variation in the time delay between ejaculation and the inhibition of infanticide was consistent within young individuals (<10 months of age), but in older males (> 18 months of age) the time interval between ejaculation and parenting was significantly prolonged and attenuated. Another unique aspect of this phenomenon is that variation among individuals in their timing and response to light cues is correlated with phenotypic variation in sex steroid exposure during late fetal development. So far, no simple physiological explanation can account for the neural mechanism triggered by ejaculation that coordinates these time-delayed behavioral changes toward pups.