Prolactin underlies parental behaviors and related physiological changes across many vertebrates, including birds and mammals. Less is known about how relevant target tissues vary in their prolactin responsiveness. We measured PRL and PRLR gene expression in tissues relevant to parental care in both sexes of a biparental bird.
During breeding, multiple circulating hormones, including prolactin, facilitate reproductive transitions in species that exhibit parental care. Prolactin underlies parental behaviors and related physiological changes across many vertebrates, including birds and mammals. While circulating prolactin levels often fluctuate across breeding, less is known about how relevant target tissues vary in their prolactin responsiveness via prolactin receptor (PRLR) expression. Recent studies have also investigated prolactin (PRL) gene expression outside of the pituitary (i.e., extra-pituitary PRL), but how PRL gene expression varies during parental care in non-pituitary tissue (e.g., hypothalamus, gonads) remains largely unknown. Further, it is unclear if and how tissue-specific PRL and PRLR vary between the sexes during biparental care. To address this, we measured PRL and PRLR gene expression in tissues relevant to parental care, the endocrine reproductive hypothalamic-pituitary- gonadal (HPG) axis and the crop (a tissue with a similar function as the mammalian mammary gland), across various reproductive stages in both sexes of a biparental bird, the rock dove (Columba livia). We also assessed how these genes responded to changes in offspring presence by adding chicks mid-incubation, simulating an early hatch when prolactin levels were still moderately low. We found that pituitary PRL expression mirrored changes in plasma prolactin levels, and detected extra-pituitary PRL in the hypothalamus, gonads and crop. Hypothalamic and gonadal PRLR expression also changed as birds began incubation. Crop PRLR expression correlated with plasma prolactin, peaking when chicks hatched. Hypothalamic and gonadal PRL and PRLR gene expression differed significantly in response to offspring cues, even when plasma prolactin levels did not differ. We also found sex differences in PRL and PRLR that suggest gene expression may allow males to compensate for lower levels in prolactin by upregulating PRLR in all tissues. Overall, this study advances our understanding of how tissue-specific changes in responsiveness to parental hormones may differ across key reproductive transitions, in response to offspring cues, and between the sexes.