Royal Society Publishing

Environmental sex determination in a reptile varies seasonally and with yolk hormones

R. M. Bowden, M. A. Ewert, C. E. Nelson

Abstract

Most hypotheses that have been put forward in order to explain the persistence of environmental sex determination (ESD) in reptiles assume a relatively fixed association of sex with temperature–induced phenotype and no maternal influence on offspring sex. Here we demonstrate the association of maternally derived yolk hormone levels with the offspring sex ratio and describe two new aspects of temperaturedependent sex determination (TSD), i.e. seasonal variation in both thermal response and yolk steroid levels. Eggs from painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) were incubated at 28°C. The hatchling sex ratio at 28°C (i.e. the phenotypic reaction norm for sex at 28°C) shifted seasonally from ca. 72% male to ca. 76% female. Yolk oestradiol (E2) increased seasonally while testosterone (T) decreased. The proportion of males in a clutch decreased as E2 levels increased and the E2:T ratio increased. These new findings are discussed in relation to heritability and adaptive explanations for the persistence of ESD in reptiles. Maternally derived yolk hormones may provide a mechanism for the seasonal shift in the sex ratio which in turn may help explain the persistence of ESD in reptiles. They may also explain those clutches of other reptiles with TSD that fail to yield only males at maximally masculinizing conditions.

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