Ethological concepts revisited: Immediate early gene induction in response to sexual stimuli in birds

Gregory F. Ball, J. Balthazart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Courtship behaviors were interpreted by ethologists as being examples of 'sign stimuli' that would act as 'releasers' of stereotypic species-typical behaviors in conspecifics. A key component of the sign stimulus concept is that some form of stimulus filtering occurs that is responsible for the marked selective behavioral responsiveness. Studies of immediate early gene induction in the avian brain in response to conspecific stimuli associated with courtship and mating reveal that such gene induction is highly selective. In male Japanese quail (Coturnix japonica), studies of the immediate early gene c-fos or zenk have been conducted in birds engaging in both appetitive and consummatory aspects of male sexual behavior. High induction of immediate early genes occurs in hypothalamic and limbic areas such as the medial preoptic nucleus, bed nucleus striae terminalis and parts of the archistriatum in birds who had copulated and/or who had expressed a learned social proximity response, reflecting appetitive sexual behavior. Immediate early gene expression was also increased in telencephalic areas such as the hyperstriatum ventrale that presumably plays a role in the integration of sensory cues related to female recognition. In European starlings, studies of zenk induction have been conducted in females who hear male-typical courtship song. Clayton and Mello had shown that zenk is induced in the auditory telencephalon of canaries and zebra finches at high levels specifically in response to conspecific song. Immediate early genes such as fos and zenk are also expressed in song control nuclei specifically in association with song production. In starlings it was found that song was effective in rapidly inducing zenk expression in the auditory telencephalon in males and in females in the breeding as well as in the non-breeding season. Thus, the expression is not greater in females who use song to choose mates or during the breeding season when females are choosing mates. However, there is evidence that high levels of induction in certain areas of the auditory telencephalon in females are greater in response to songs organized in longer bouts that females prefer. Though immediate early gene induction in the brain does not exactly mimic selective behavioral responses to sign stimuli it may represent one important way in which stimulus selectivity of the sort hypothesized previously by Tinbergen and Lorenz is coded. Engaging in species-typical behaviors is also associated with motor-driven immediate early gene expression.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)252-270
Number of pages19
JournalBrain, behavior and evolution
Issue number5
StatePublished - 2001


  • Bird song
  • Courtship behavior
  • European starling
  • Japanese quail
  • Reproductive behavior
  • Songbird

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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