“Alpha males win again”

Science reporting can be inept, as Jender reminded us last month.  So we should be glad that finally Nature Neuroscience is publishing the article on neurogenesis caused in female mice by exposure to the pheromones of dominant male mice, “Male pheromone–stimulated neurogenesis in the adult female brain: possible role in mating behavior” (Nature Neuroscience10, 1003 – 1011 (2007)).  (In fact, the article was available online last month; but the print version is just being announced.)  And since the discussion is technical, perhaps we should be glad for the less formal discussion provided.  That’s the one with the title about alpha males winning again (Nature Neuroscience10, 938 – 940 (2007)).

Should we ask what the dominant male mice are winning?  They are getting higher scores?  In what?  The number of females they have sex with, I guess.  Or maybe it’s the number of encounters? 

In any case, thanks to Nature for sharing your values with us!  Glad you all are tracking the scoring in the animal kingdom.

8 thoughts on ““Alpha males win again”

  1. Unfortunately, electronic versions of articles from Nature are expensive, unless you have access through a library, as many people in universities do. I’m copying below abstracts and the first sentence of the comment.

    The comment, besides having a title that certainly reinforces a certain picture of the attitudes towards women that one can find in science departments, has some of the problematic content typical of work in this sort of area. The first sentence illustrates this. Pheromones are compared to a language and are said to contain cues to social status, health and genetic suitability. But if the analogy goes through, the cues should be cues to the individual female mice. However, it is not obvious that the pleasantness of the scent actually is that of genetic suitability; it seems more plausible that what the mice like is something well correlated with genetic suitability. The reason for this is that mice are clueless about genes, as we have been for most of our history.

    Original paper:

    Male pheromone–stimulated neurogenesis in the adult female brain: possible role in mating behavior.
    Gloria K Mak, Emeka K Enwere1, Christopher Gregg1, Tomi Pakarainen, Matti Poutanen, Ilpo Huhtaniemi & Samuel Weiss

    The regulation of female reproductive behaviors may involve memories of male pheromone signatures, formed in part by neural circuitry involving the olfactory bulb and hippocampus. These neural structures are the principal sites of adult neurogenesis; however, previous studies point to their independent regulation by sensory and physiological stimuli. Here we report that the pheromones of dominant (but not subordinate) males stimulate neuronal production in both the olfactory bulb and hippocampus of female mice, which are independently mediated by prolactin and luteinizing hormone, respectively. Neurogenesis induced by dominant-male pheromones correlates with a female preference for dominant males over subordinate males, whereas blocking neurogenesis with the mitotic inhibitor cytosine arabinoside eliminated this preference. These results suggest that male pheromones are involved in regulating neurogenesis in both the olfactory bulb and hippocampus, which may be important for female reproductive success.


    Alpha males win again
    Derek P DiRocco & Zhengui Xia

    Pheromones influence sexual behavior and reproduction in rodents. A new report suggests that neurogenesis induced in the female mouse brain by male pheromones governs the choice of dominant males as mates.

    Flowers are sometimes called the universal language of love, but for many species, that distinction belongs to pheromones, airborne chemicals that provide cues concerning the individual’s social status, health and genetic advantage.

  2. Interestingly, in the last week Nature has also decided to change its mission statement to acknowledge the errors in the previous statement’s gender-exclusive language (“men of science.”)

    Here’s the link from Language Log.

    Also maybe a good topic to plug Adele Mercer’s excellent paper which offers a myriad of arguments in support of the ameliorative use of gender-inclusive language.

  3. Thanks, Rachel! That’s actually a really interesting approach. Instead of switching to gender-inclusive language, they’ve added ‘sic’ after ‘men’. I haven’t seen much discussion of this solution to the problem, but it’s a good idea in cases where one wants to preserve a quote for historical reasons.

  4. Just a very small point about Rachel McKinney’s post: Please note that the last name of the philosopher to whom Rachel refers is is MERCIER, not “Mercer”.

  5. Rachel,

    Thanks so much for the link. The end of the quote from Nature is odd, particularly since no other initiatives by Nature or anyone else are mentioned.

    They say:

    The small, belated change takes place against the vast backdrop of a scientific world where the upper echelons of academia, academies and prestigious awards are still numerically greatly dominated by men, and where outright discrimination can still rear its ugly head (see page 749). In this context, the insertion of a Latin word in a couple of paragraphs may be a tiny step: but it is at least one in the right direction.

    Huge problems deserve small measures??

    The reference to page 749 is to a letter about how minority women from overseas have some unique problems, and that letter in turn references two other articles, from one of which comes:

    The most recent figures available suggest that Europe is still dealing with significant attrition by women after they’ve earned their PhDs … In 2006, the European Commission (EC) reported that although 40% of PhD students in the natural sciences are female, only 11.3% of the professor, research director and other top positions are occupied by women. In engineering and technology, 21.9% of PhD students are female, but this total dips to 5.8% at the highest levels of academia1.

    In the US, the percentage of women making full prof in the sciences is about 4%. I think, but am not sure, that industry has done much better.

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