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Mass-Specific Metabolic Rate and Sperm Competition Determine Sperm Size in Marsupial Mammals

By Maximiliano Tourmente, Montserrat Gomendio and Eduardo R. S. Roldan


Two complementary hypotheses have been proposed to explain variation in sperm size. The first proposes that post-copulatory sexual selection favors an increase in sperm size because it enhances sperm swimming speed, which is an important determinant of fertilization success in competitive contexts. The second hypothesis proposes that mass-specific metabolic rate acts as a constraint, because large animals with low mass-specific metabolic rates will not be able to process resources at the rates needed to produce large sperm. This constraint is expected to be particularly pronounced among mammals, given that this group contains some of the largest species on Earth. We tested these hypotheses among marsupials, a group in which mass-specific metabolic rates are roughly 30% lower than those of eutherian mammals of similar size, leading to the expectation that metabolic rate should be a major constraint. Our findings support both hypotheses because levels of sperm competition are associated with increases in sperm size, but low mass-specific metabolic rate constrains sperm size among large species. We also found that the relationship between sperm size and mass-specific metabolic rate is steeper among marsupials and shallower among eutherian mammals. This finding has two implications: marsupials respond to changes in mass-specific metabolic rate by modifying sperm length to a greater extent, suggesting that they are more constrained by metabolic rate. In addition, for any given mass-specific metabolic rate, marsupials produce longer sperm. We suggest that this is the consequence of marsupials diverting resources away from sperm numbers and into sperm size, due to their efficient sperm transport along the female tract and the existence of mechanisms to protect sperm

Topics: Research Article
Publisher: Public Library of Science
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Provided by: PubMed Central

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