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In many songbird species, males sing to attract females and repel rivals. How can gregarious, non-territorial songbirds such as zebra finches, where females have access to numerous males, sustain monogamy? We found that the dopaminergic reward circuitry of zebra finches can simultaneously promote social cohesion and breeding boundaries. Surprisingly, in unmated males but not in females, striatal dopamine neurotransmission was elevated after hearing songs. Behaviorally too, unmated males but not females persistently exchanged mild punishments in return for songs. Song reinforcement diminished when dopamine receptors were blocked. In females, we observed song reinforcement exclusively to the mate’s song, although their striatal dopamine neurotransmission was only slightly elevated. These findings suggest that song-triggered dopaminergic activation serves a dual function in social songbirds: as low-threshold social reinforcement in males and as ultra-selective sexual reinforcement in females. Co-evolution of sexually dimorphic reinforcement systems can explain the coexistence of gregariousness and monogamy.


This article was originally published in eLife, available at DOI: 10.7554/eLife.25819.001.

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, (CC BY 4.0)


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