A number of studies examining developmental, neural and hormonal aspects of sexually dimorphic spatial learning (Morris water-maze) in meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus) and deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) are described. We found that, in adult deer mice, female spatial performance decreased during the breeding season relative to the non-breeding season, whereas the reverse pattern was observed in male performance. There was a sex difference favouring males in spatial learning during the breeding season, but not during the non-breeding season. In adult meadow voles, females with low levels of oestradiol and males performed better in the water-maze than females with high levels of oestradiol. Postweaning voles (20 and 25 days after birth) acquired the water-maze task more quickly than preweaning voles (day 10). No sex difference in water-maze performance was evident at any of these juvenile ages. When these same voles were tested again as adults to investigate retention and re-acquisition of the water-maze, both males and females from male-biased litters re-acquired the task better than males and females from female-biased litters. Together, the results of these studies indicate that sexually dimorphic spatial ability is dependent on the organization (in utero) and activational effects of gonadal hormones. These studies provide the first demonstration of the influence of natural changes in reproductive status on spatial learning of deer mice and meadow voles. The results also demonstrate that spatial performance of males and females is differentially affected by changes in reproductive status and that group differences in the laboratory are associated with group differences in space utilization in the wild. These findings help to clarify previous apparently contradictory findings about sex differences in spatial ability.

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