Sex differences in behavioral repertoires are often reflected in the underlying electrophysiological and morphological properties of motor neurons. Male zebra finches produce long, spectrally complex, learned songs and short calls, whereas female finches only produce short, innate, and spectrally simple calls. In both sexes, vocalizations are produced by using syringeal muscles controlled by motoneurons within the tracheosyringeal part of the hypoglossal motor nucleus (XIIts). We asked whether the sexually dimorphic vocal repertoire of adult zebra finches is paralleled by structural and functional differences in syringeal motoneurons. By using immunohistochemical and intracellular staining methods, we describe sex differences in the morphology of XIIts and its surrounding neuropil (suprahypoglossal region; SH). Although the overall number of XIIts neurons and the proportions of somata/neuropil were not sexually dimorphic, the volumes of both XIIts and SH were larger in males, in part because male XIIts neurons had larger somata. In contrast, female XIIts motoneurons had a more complex dendritic structure than did male neurons, suggesting that the larger volume of the male XIIts is due in part to increased numbers of afferents. Intracellular recordings in brain slices revealed that the intrinsic electrophysiological properties of female XIIts neurons were similar to published values for male XIIts motoneurons. We also show that female neurons received glycinergic inputs from the brainstem respiratory premotor column, similar to those described in males. These findings indicate that male and female zebra finches produce their disparate vocal repertoires using physiologically similar motoneurons. Thus, sites upstream of the motoneuron pool may be the major determinants of sexually dimorphic vocal behaviors in this species.
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