The female effect : how female receptivity influences faecal testosterone metabolite levels, socio-positive behaviour and vocalization in male Southern white rhinoceroses
Testosterone is known to be essential for sexual maturation as well as for the display of behavioural traits linked to reproduction. At the same time, external factors such as the presence of receptive females may affect testosterone levels, stressing the hormone's substantial role in reproductive success. It is therefore of major interest to investigate the links between androgens, behaviour and the social environment especially in species that rely on a resilient reproduction rate, such as the white rhinoceros (WR). We collected faecal samples of 16 male Southern WR (Ceratotherium simum simum) aged between 1 and 44 years from 11 European zoos. Audio and video recordings were simultaneously taken from five of the study males that were sexually mature and had direct contact with receptive females. Our results showed a positive correlation of faecal testosterone metabolite (fTM) concentrations and progressing age up until adulthood followed by a decline in older males. While previous reproductive success did not show any effect, the access to receptive females resulted in higher fTM levels. Thereby, fTM concentrations remained at the same level regardless of the receptivity phase, while social cohesion with respective females, affiliative behaviour as well as call rates of Pant and Hiss distinctly peaked during the receptive compared to the non-receptive periods. Conclusively, the immediate presence of receptive females poses a female effect that enhances the overall androgen levels in males and, thus, might facilitate their reproductive success. However, androgens do not seem to be the main driver of behavioural changes during courtship or mating. By linking endocrinological and socio-behavioural factors, we were able to provide an applicable basis for non-invasive monitoring of reproductive behaviour in male WR in captivity, thereby contributing to deeper understanding of potential reproduction impairments in a species whose population in captivity remains not fully self-sustaining.