Testosterone makes male gerbils cuddlier

3 minute read

The androgen seems to promote some distinctly non-toxic male behaviour.

Testosterone has gotten a bad rap, being associated in the minds of many with aggression, antisocial behaviour and toxic masculinity.

But new research suggests it may also make us – well, gerbils at least – cuddlier.

“For what we believe is the first time, we’ve demonstrated that testosterone can directly promote nonsexual, prosocial behaviour, in addition to aggression, in the same individual,” study author psychologist Assistant Professor Aubrey Kelly said in a statement.

Professor Kelly and her scientist husband decided to test the effects of testosterone on Mongolian gerbils, who mate for life and share childrearing duties (very #relationshipgoals, for the scientists and the gerbils).  

When the gerbil ladies get pregnant, the fellas can get quite cuddly towards the female and protective of the pups.

But they can also be pretty aggressive to other males when they are in mating season or if they’re defending their territory.

Before you cancel them for their problematic behaviour, a la Johnny Depp (Just Say No to Rodents of the Caribbean), Professor Kelly found some surprising behaviour when they were given extra testosterone.

She found that after giving males a shot of testosterone, they didn’t become any less cuddly towards their female partners.

“Instead, we were surprised that a male gerbil became even more cuddly and prosocial with his partner,” the Emory University researcher said. “He became like ‘super partner’.”

They then tested what would happen when these juiced up males were exposed to an intruder.

The female was removed from the cage and the jacked male was left alone, before a new male was put into his enclosure.

“Normally, a male would chase another male that came into its cage, or try to avoid it,” said Professor Kelly. “Instead, the resident males that had previously been injected with testosterone were more friendly to the intruder.”

Strangely Professor Kelly found the friendly behaviour dropped off when the scientists gave the original male even more testosterone, prompting him to chase or avoid the new male as Mongolian gerbils (and male members of the Fast and Furious crew) are wont to do.

“It was like they suddenly woke up and realised they weren’t supposed to be friendly in that context,” Professor Kelly said.

She suspected that giving the shot of testosterone while the gerbil was in the presence of the love of his life may have put him in a lovey state of mind. But the second shot may have switched him back to his usual jock wiring.

It seemed that testosterone actually amplified their cuddly or aggro behaviour, Professor Kelly said.

“It’s surprising because normally we think of testosterone as increasing sexual behaviours and aggression. But we’ve shown that it can have more nuanced effects, depending on the social context.”

Professor Kelly said that humans were more complex than gerbils (although I’m not sure if they’ve been paying attention to the recent Australian, US or UK federal governments), so they hope similar research can be done to see whether it’s time to soften testosterone’s bad boy image in us too.

If you see something that makes you feel something, tell penny@medicalrepublic.com.au.

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