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  1. Abstract

    In a rapidly warming world, exposure to high temperatures may impact fitness, but the gene regulatory mechanisms that link sublethal heat to sexually selected traits are not well understood, particularly in endothermic animals. Our experiment used zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata), songbirds that experience extreme temperature fluctuations in their native Australia. We exposed captive males to an acute thermal challenge (43°C) compared with thermoneutral (35°C) and lower (27°C) temperatures. We found significantly more heat dissipation behaviours at 43°C, a temperature previously shown to reduce song production and fertility, and more heat retention behaviours at 27°C. Next, we characterized transcriptomic responses in tissues important for mating effort—the posterior telencephalon, for its role in song production, and the testis, for its role in fertility and hormone production. Differential expression of hundreds of genes in the testes, but few in the brain, suggests the brain is less responsive to extreme temperatures. Nevertheless, gene network analyses revealed that expression related to dopaminergic signalling in the brain covaried with heat dissipation behaviours, providing a mechanism by which temporary thermal challenges may alter motivational circuits for song production. In both brain and testis, we observed correlations between thermally sensitive gene networks and individual differences in thermoregulatory behaviour. Although we cannot directly relate these gene regulatory changes to mating success, our results suggest that individual variation in response to thermal challenges could impact sexually selected traits in a warming world.

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