Social influences on the arginine vasotocin system are independent of gonads in a sex-changing fish.
Many neuropeptide systems subserving sex-typical behavior are dependent on sex steroids for both their organization early in life and activation during maturity. The arginine vasopressin/vasotocin (AVP/AVT) system is strongly androgen dependent in many species and critically mediates responses to sociosexual stimuli. The bluehead wrasse is a teleost fish that exhibits a female-to-male sex change in response to social cues, and neither the development nor the maintenance of male-typical behavior depends on the presence of gonads. To examine social and gonadal inputs on the AVP/AVT system in the preoptic area (POA) of the hypothalamus, we conducted three field experiments. In the first experiment, we found that AVT mRNA abundance is higher in sex-changing females that attain social dominance and display dominant male behavior than in subordinate females, regardless of whether the dominant females were intact or ovariectomized. However, AVT-immunoreactive (IR) soma size in the gigantocellular POA (gPOA), but not in the magnocellular or parvocellular POA, increased only when females were displaying both dominant male behavior and had developed testes. In the second experiment, castration of dominant terminal-phase males had no effect on AVT mRNA abundance or any behavior we measured but did increase gPOA AVT-IR soma size compared with sham-operated controls. In the third experiment, 11-ketotestosterone implants in socially subordinate, ovariectomized females had no effect on either AVT mRNA abundance or AVT-IR soma size compared with controls. These results demonstrate that the AVT neural phenotype in the bluehead wrasse can be strongly influenced by social status, and that these social influences can be manifested independent of gonads.