Cichlids offer an exciting opportunity to understand vertebrate speciation; chemical communication could be one of the drivers of African cichlid radiation. Chemical signals mediate key aspects in the lives of vertebrates and often are species-specific. Dominant male Mozambique tilapia (Oreochromis mossambicus Peters 1852) release a sex pheromone, 5β-pregnan-3α,17α,20β-triol 3-glucuronate and its 20α-epimer, via their urine. The objective of this study was to assess sensitivity, specificity and versatility of the olfactory system of O. mossambicus to other steroids and their conjugates using the electro-olfactogram. O. mossambicus was sensitive to several 3-glucuronidated steroids, but did not respond to prostaglandins, unconjugated steroids or 17- or 20-conjugated steroids. Stimulation of the olfactory epithelium with increasing concentrations (10-12 M to 10-5 M) of 5β-pregnan-3α,17α,20β-triol 3-glucuronate, 5β-pregnan-3α,17α,20α-triol 3-glucuronate, 3α,17α-dihydroxy-5β-pregnan-20-one 3-glucuronate, etiocholanolone 3α-glucuronate and 17β-estradiol 3-glucuronate produced characteristic sigmoidal concentration-response curves. However, tilapia were most sensitive to 17β-estradiol-3-glucuronate, which also had the lowest apparent EC50 and maximal response amplitude. Cross-adaptation and binary mixture experiments suggested that 5β,3α-reduced pregnan- and androsta- 3-glucuronates share (a) common olfactory receptor(s), whereas 17β-estradiol 3-glucuronate is detected via (a) distinct olfactory receptor(s). In conclusion, the Mozambique tilapia has evolved high olfactory sensitivity and specificity to 3-glucuronidated steroids through two distinct olfactory receptor types; one detecting a male sex pheromone and a second detecting 17β-estradiol 3-glucuronate, a putative female-derived signal. However, O. mossambicus differs much in its olfactory perception from the more recently derived East African cichlid Astatotilapia burtoni, suggesting that chemical communication could, indeed, be involved in speciation.

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