So how do you get aggression which is so specific? And what are the fighting dog breeders actually selecting for? What’s different in the DNA of a game dog and a not-game dog? We don’t have any real idea. Recently I came up with one possibility (too new even to be called a theory). It opens more questions than answers, but here’s the story.
There is a well-studied phenomenon in rats and mice related to the position of the fetuses in the uterus. (I know, uterine position is probably not related to genetics, but bear with me for a minute.) If a female fetus is surrounded by two males, one on each side, she gets more than her usual dose of testosterone in the uterus. Because testosterone helps the developing fetus know what sex to develop into, this extra testosterone makes her develop some masculine characteristics which will stay with her throughout life: she will be what is referred to as a masculinized female. Among other things, her behavior will be affected. Her play style will change to a more rough and tumble style. And she will be more aggressive towards others of her species.
This phenomenon has been demonstrated in multiple species, including guinea pigs, rabbits, and marmots. It is suspected to be in effect in dogs as well: although there are no published papers reporting on it in dogs (at least none that I could find — please let me know if I’m wrong!) I have heard it discussed at dog training seminars as a possibility. And given the range of species it affects and the similarity of effects of reproductive hormones on development across species, it seems really likely to affect dogs.
The big question is: how could this be a genetic phenomenon? The genders of your neighbors in the uterus are random, right? Well, not completely: one of the differences between masculinized and non-masculinized females is that masculinized females have more male offspring. Really. We don't know how that works, though there are some theories about why it may be a useful adaptation to some environments.
Moreover, testosterone doesn't just come from other fetuses. It comes from the mother as well. Some amount of testosterone is normal in development. What if what dog fighters are breeding for, without knowing it, is mothers who produce more testosterone when they are pregnant? Or maybe fetuses which are worse at transforming testosterone into estrogen (as fetuses like to do)? Or fetuses which are more sensitive to testosterone (maybe have more numerous or more sensitive testosterone receptors)?
These questions lead to even more questions, of course, which is why I haven’t even called these ideas a theory yet. Do the more aggressive masculinized female rodents show more aggression to their own species than to humans (which is my initial question about the fighting dogs)? Do male rodents with more males beside them in the uterus show increased levels of aggression? Do we know anything at all about different levels of testosterone released by the dam, not just by uterine neighbors?
There is a lot known about intrauterine position. It is really well studied, partly because it might help us understand the effects of reproductive hormones on fetuses in general, such as possible effects of artificial hormones which are unintentionally introduced into our diets, like BPA. So as I continue to read about it, I hope I’ll start to figure out if this is an idea with legs or just a passing fancy. In the interests of keeping this post readable, I haven’t written about all the interesting facets that I’ve encountered in this phenomenon, so feel free to ask questions. And there are certainly holes in the idea beyond the ones I mentioned, so feel free to point those out, too!
- Ryan B.C. (2002). Intrauterine position effects, Neuroscience and Behavioral Reviews, 26 (6) 665-678. PMID: 12479841
- Monclus R., Cook T. & Blumstein D.T. (2012). Masculinized female yellow-bellied marmots initiate more social interactions, Biology Letters, 8 (2) 208-210. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0754
- Hotchkiss A.K., Lambright C.S., Ostby J.S., Parks-Saldutti L., Vandenbergh J.G. & Gray L.E. (2006). Prenatal Testosterone Exposure Permanently Masculinizes Anogenital Distance, Nipple Development, and Reproductive Tract Morphology in Female Sprague-Dawley Rats, Toxicological Sciences, 96 (2) 335-345. DOI: 10.1093/toxsci/kfm002
- Bánszegi O., Altbäcker V. & Bilkó Á. (2009). Intrauterine position influences anatomy and behavior in domestic rabbits, Physiology & Behavior, 98 (3) 258-262. DOI: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2009.05.016
- Correa L.A., Frugone M.J. & Soto-Gamboa M. (2013). Social dominance and behavioral consequences of intrauterine position in female groups of the social rodent Octodon degus., Physiology & behavior, PMID: 23769692