SICB 2014: Condition-Dependent Variation in the Sperm Of Anolis sagrei

Though we now understand that post-copulatory sexual selection (such as sperm competition and cryptic female choice) can be as important in determining variance in reproductive success as pre-copulatory sexual selection, and though we recognize that the expression of traits subject to pre-copulatory sexual selection is often condition-dependent, it turns out that we know almost nothing about the condition-dependence of traits under post-copulatory sexual selection.

Sperm of Anolis sagrei. Picture by Ariel Kahrl.

Sperm of Anolis sagrei. Picture by Ariel Kahrl.

In a session devoted to post-copulatory sexual selection, University of Virginia graduate student Ariel Kahrl described her research on the condition-dependence of sperm characteristics in Anolis sagrei. By feeding size-matched male lizards differentially for a period of four months, Kahrl not only generated differences in the body condition of these males, but also ensured that their sperm had developed under her imposed dietary regime. Kahrl predicted that male body condition would affect sperm morphology and sperm count. Pairs of males reared under different dietary conditions were also mated to a single female (making sure to control for mating order by using a reciprocal mating design), thus putting the sperm of two males with different body conditions into direct competition. Kahrl predicted that the fertilization success of males would depend on sperm morphology and count.

Not surprisingly, males with higher body condition had higher fertilization success. It turns out that variation in fertilization success may be influenced by a tradeoff between sperm mid-piece size and sperm number. This situation is interesting, because one can reasonably predict that males on either end of the tradeoff could have high reproductive success—having many sperm per ejaculate could increase the odds of fertilization, akin to purchasing multiple lottery tickets, but having sperm with larger mid-pieces, and thus potentially more mitochondria, perhaps might provide sperm with the burst of energy necessary to win the fertilization race.

In fact, Kahrl found that males with high sperm counts but small midpieces achieve high reproductive success. Intriguingly, she also found that high-condition males had sperm with less variable morphology than low-condition males, and hypothesizes that the dimensions of these uniform sperm match the dimensions of the tubules in females where sperm is stored. Kahrl’s results link pre-copulatory to post-copulatory sexual selection through condition-dependence, and represent a sizeable piece in the puzzle of how sexual selection works in Anolis lizards.

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