Sperm competition risk generates phenotypic plasticity in ovum fertilizability

Renée C. Firman, Leigh W. Simmons


Theory predicts that sperm competition will generate sexual conflict that favours increased ovum defences against polyspermy. A recent study on house mice has shown that ovum resistance to fertilization coevolves in response to increased sperm fertilizing capacity. However, the capacity for the female gamete to adjust its fertilizability as a strategic response to sperm competition risk has never, to our knowledge, been studied. We sourced house mice (Mus domesticus) from natural populations that differ in the level of sperm competition and sperm fertilizing capacity, and manipulated the social experience of females during their sexual development to simulate conditions of either a future ‘risk’ or ‘no risk’ of sperm competition. Consistent with coevolutionary predictions, we found lower fertilization rates in ova produced by females from a high sperm competition population compared with ova from a low sperm competition population, indicating that these populations are divergent in the fertilizability of their ova. More importantly, females exposed to a ‘risk’ of sperm competition produced ova that had greater resistance to fertilization than ova produced by females reared in an environment with ‘no risk’. Consequently, we show that variation in sperm competition risk during development generates phenotypic plasticity in ova fertilizability, which allows females to prepare for prevailing conditions during their reproductive life.

  • Received August 13, 2013.
  • Accepted September 19, 2013.
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