In numerous species, egg chemoattractants play a critical role in guiding sperm towards unfertilized eggs (sperm chemotaxis). Until now, the known functions of sperm chemotaxis include increasing the effective target size of eggs, thereby promoting sperm–egg encounters, and facilitating species recognition. Here, we report that in the broadcast spawning mussel, Mytilus galloprovincialis, egg chemoattractants may play an unforeseen role in sexual selection by enabling sperm to effectively ‘choose’ between the eggs of different conspecific females. In an initial experiment, we confirmed that sperm chemotaxis occurs in M. galloprovincialis by showing that sperm are attracted towards unfertilized eggs when given the choice of eggs or no eggs in a dichotomous chamber. We then conducted two cross-classified mating experiments, each comprising the same individual males and females crossed in identical male × female combinations, but under experimental conditions that offered sperm ‘no-choice’ (each fertilization trial took place in a Petri dish and involved a single male and female) or a ‘choice’ of a female's eggs (sperm were placed in the centre of a dichotomous choice chamber and allowed to choose eggs from different females). We show that male-by-female interactions characterized fertilization rates in both experiments, and that there was remarkable consistency between patterns of sperm migration in the egg-choice experiment and fertilization rates in the no-choice experiment. Thus, sperm appear to exploit chemical cues to preferentially swim towards eggs with which they are most compatible during direct sperm-to-egg encounters. These results reveal that sperm differentially select eggs on the basis of chemical cues, thus exposing the potential for egg chemoattractants to mediate mate choice for genetically compatible partners. Given the prevalence of sperm chemotaxis across diverse taxa, our findings may have broad implications for sexual selection in other mating systems.
- Received January 25, 2012.
- Accepted February 28, 2012.
- This journal is © 2012 The Royal Society