Experimental evidence for a role of dopamine in avian personality traits


There is increasing interest on the genetic and physiological bases of behavioural differences among individuals, namely animal personality. One particular dopamine (DA) receptor gene (the dopamine receptor D4 gene) has been used as candidate gene to explain personality differences, but with mixed results. Here we use an alternative approach, exogenously manipulating the dopaminergic system and testing for effects on personality assays in a social bird species, the common waxbill (Estrilda astrild). We treated birds with agonists and antagonists for DA receptors of both D1 and D2 pathways (the latter includes receptor D4) and found that short-term manipulation of DA signalling had an immediate effect on personality-related behaviours. In an assay of social responses (mirror test), manipulation of D2 receptor pathways reduced time spent looking at the social stimulus (mirror image). Blocking D2 receptors reduced motor activity in this social assay, while treatment with D2 agonist augmented activity in this social assay but reduced activity in a non-social behavioural assay. Also, in the non-social assay, treatment with the D1 antagonist markedly increased time spent at the feeder. These results show distinct and context-specific effects of the dopaminergic pathways on waxbill personality traits. Our results also suggest that experimental manipulation of DA signalling can disrupt a behavioural correlation (more active individuals being less attentive to mirror image) that is habitually observed as part of a behavioural syndrome in waxbills. We discuss our results in the contexts of animal personality, and the role of the DA system in reward and social behaviour.


Silva, P. A., Trigo, S., Marques, C. I., Cardoso, G. C., Soares, M. C. 2020. Experimental evidence for a role of dopamine in avian personality traits. Journal of Experimental Biology. 223.

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