, Volume 54, Issue 5, pp 423-430
Date: 24 May 2003

Aversive and avoidance responses of female mice to the odors of males infected with an ectoparasite and the effects of prior familiarity

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The detection and avoidance of parasitized males is a component of female mate choice. Here we show that female mice can distinguish between the odors of individual males infected with an ectoparasite, the murine louse, Polyplax serrata, and uninfected males. Female mice displayed aversive responses to, and avoided the odors of, parasitized males. A 15 min exposure to the urinary odors of infected males induced an endogenous opioid-peptide-mediated reduction in pain sensitivity or analgesia, while a brief 1 min exposure to the odors elicited a non-opioid-mediated analgesic response. These neuromodulatory mechanisms facilitate the expression of a variety of anxiety and stress associated responses of which pain inhibition is one component. Females further distinguished between novel and familiar infected males. Prior exposure to the odors of an infected males reduced the degree of analgesia expressed and the associated levels of anxiety and stress and their concomitant costs. In a Y-maze odor preference test females also displayed a marked overall preference for, and initial choice of, the odors of clean, uninfected males and an active discrimination against, and avoidance of, the odors of both familiar and novel infected males. These findings indicate that female mice can distinguish between males infected with an ectoparasite and clean uninfected males and display aversive and avoidance responses to infected males. They also show that females can discriminate between individual infected males and modulate their aversive responses to the odors of infected males on the basis of prior familiarity. This is likely part of the mechanisms whereby females can both reduce the transmission of ectoparasites, such as lice, to themselves and select for parasite-free males.

Communicated by P. Heeb