For many species, parental care critically affects offspring survival. But what drives animals to display parental behaviours towards young? In mammals, pregnancy-induced physiological transformations seem key in preparing the neural circuits that lead towards attraction (and reduced-aggression) to young. Beyond mammalian maternal behaviour, knowledge of the neural mechanisms that underlie young-directed parental care is severely lacking. We took advantage of a domesticated bird species, the Japanese quail, for which parental behaviour towards chicks can be induced in virgin non-reproductive adults through a sensitization procedure, a process that is not effective in all animals. We used the variation in parental responses to study neural transcriptomic changes associated with the sensitization procedure itself and with the outcome of the procedure (i.e., presence of parental behaviours). We found differences in gene expression in the hypothalamus and bed nucleus of the stria terminalis, but not the nucleus taeniae. Two genes identified are of particular interest. One is neurotensin, previously only demonstrated to be causally associated with maternal care in mammals. The other one is urocortin 3, causally demonstrated to affect young-directed neglect and aggression in mammals. Because our studies were conducted in animals that were reproductively quiescent, our results reflect core neural changes that may be associated with avian young-directed care independently of extensive hormonal stimulation. Our work opens new avenues of research into understanding the neural basis of parental care in non-placental species.
Lopes, P.C., de Bruijn, R. Neurotranscriptomic changes associated with chick-directed parental care in adult non-reproductive Japanese quail. Sci Rep 11, 15481 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-94927-6
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