ABSTRACT

Mammals living at temperate latitudes typically display annual cyclicity in their reproductive activity: births are synchronized when environmental conditions are most favorable. In a majority of these species, day length is the main proximate factor used to anticipate seasonal changes and to adapt physiology. The brain integrates this photoperiodic signal through key hypothalamic structures, which regulate the reproductive axis. In this context, our study aimed to characterize regulations that occur along the hypothalamo–pituitary–gonadal (HPG) axis in male fossorial water voles (Arvicola terrestris, also known as Arvicola amphibius) throughout the year and to further probe the implication of photoperiod in these seasonal regulations. Our monthly field monitoring showed dramatic seasonal changes in the morphology and activity of reproductive organs, as well as in the androgen-dependent lateral scent glands. Moreover, our data uncovered seasonal variations at the hypothalamic level. During the breeding season, kisspeptin expression in the arcuate nucleus (ARC) decreases, while RFRP3 expression in the dorsomedial hypothalamic nucleus (DMH) increases. Our follow-up laboratory study revealed activation of the reproductive axis and confirmed a decrease in kisspeptin expression in males exposed to a long photoperiod (summer condition) compared with those maintained under a short photoperiod (winter condition) that retain all features reminiscent of sexual inhibition. Altogether, our study characterizes neuroendocrine and anatomical markers of seasonal reproductive rhythmicity in male water voles and further suggests that these seasonal changes are strongly impacted by photoperiod.

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