Journal of Ethology

, Volume 37, Issue 2, pp 221–227 | Cite as

The serotonin transporter gene could play a role in anti-predator behaviour in a forest passerine

  • Killu Timm
  • Kaarin Koosa
  • Vallo TilgarEmail author


Elucidating associations between behavioural variation and genes may help to understand the co-existence of different behavioural phenotypes in natural populations. In birds, two main candidate genes are known to affect exploratory and risk-taking behaviour through the neurotransmitter system: the dopamine receptor D4 gene (DRD4) and the serotonin transporter gene (SERT/SLC6A4). In a small passerine bird, the great tit (Parus major), anti-predator responses (hissing or non-hissing behavioural type) towards a nest predator differ consistently between individuals. As defensive anti-predator behaviours are likely related to variations in neurotransmitter systems, we tested the associations between polymorphisms of the two candidate genes (SERT and DRD4) and the propensity to give hissing calls towards a nest predator in incubating female great tits. We found that acoustic anti-predator responses in wild birds were linked to a single-nucleotide polymorphism in the SERT gene (SNP187 in exon 1), but not in the DRD4 gene. The polymorphism in the SERT gene explains about 16% of the total variance in hissing behaviour. However, as the sample size in this study is quite small, these results are preliminary and should be replicated in future studies.


Anti-predator behaviour SERT DRD4 Gene Parus major 



The authors thank Kees van Oers for help with the great tit genome and Jüri Parik for help with molecular analysis. This study was supported by the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research (institutional research funding IUT number 34–8).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Human and animal rights statement

Birds were ringed under Estonian Department of the Environment Licence No. 11, and blood samples were taken under Animal Procedures Committee of the Estonian Ministry of Agriculture Licence No. 100.


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Copyright information

© Japan Ethological Society 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Zoology, Institute of Ecology and Earth SciencesUniversity of TartuTartuEstonia

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