Examining the disconnect between prolactin and parental care in avian brood parasites

Kathleen S. Lynch, Matthew I.M. Louder, Caitlin N. Friesen, Eva K. Fischer, Angell Xiang, Angela Steele, Julia Shalov

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Prolactin is often referred to as the “parental hormone” but there are examples in which prolactin and parental behavior are disconnected. One intriguing example is in avian obligate brood parasites; species exhibiting high circulating prolactin but no parental care. To understand this disconnect, we examined transcriptional and behavioral responses to prolactin in brown-headed (Molothrus ater) and bronzed (M aeneus) brood parasitic cowbirds. We first examine prolactin-dependent regulation of transcriptome wide gene expression in the preoptic area (POA), a brain region associated with parental care across vertebrates. We next examined prolactin-dependent abundance of seven parental care-related candidate genes in hypothalamic regions that are prolactin-responsive in other avian species. We found no evidence of prolactin sensitivity in cowbirds in either case. To understand this prolactin insensitivity, we compared prolactin receptor transcript abundance between parasitic and nonparasitic species and between prolactin treated and untreated cowbirds. We observed significantly lower prolactin receptor transcript abundance in brown-headed but not bronzed cowbird POA compared with a nonparasite and no prolactin-dependent changes in either parasitic species. Finally, estrogen-primed female brown-headed cowbirds with or without prolactin treatment exhibited significantly greater avoidance of nestling begging stimuli compared with untreated birds. Taken together, our results suggest that modified prolactin receptor distributions in the POA and surrounding hypothalamic regions disconnect prolactin from parental care in brood parasitic cowbirds.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere12653
JournalGenes, Brain and Behavior
Issue number7
StatePublished - Sep 2020


  • avian brood parasite
  • hypothalamus
  • parental care
  • preoptic area
  • prolactin

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Genetics
  • Neurology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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