Sexual Reproduction

Learning Outcomes

  • Discuss sexual reproduction methods
  • Describe how sex is determined in different organisms

Sexual reproduction is the combination of (usually haploid) reproductive cells from two individuals to form a third (usually diploid) unique offspring. Sexual reproduction produces offspring with novel combinations of genes. This can be an adaptive advantage in unstable or unpredictable environments. Species that reproduce sexually must maintain two different types of individuals, males and females, which can limit the ability to colonize new habitats as both sexes must be present. As humans, we are used to thinking of animals as having two separate sexes—male and female—determined at conception. However, in the animal kingdom, there are many variations on this theme.


Photo shows a land snail.

Figure 1. Many snails are hermaphrodites. When two individuals mate, they can produce up to one hundred eggs each. (credit: Assaf Shtilman)

Hermaphroditism occurs in animals where one individual has both male and female reproductive parts. Invertebrates such as earthworms, slugs, tapeworms and snails, shown in Figure 1, are often hermaphroditic. Hermaphrodites may self-fertilize or may mate with another of their species, fertilizing each other and both producing offspring. Self fertilization is common in animals that have limited mobility or are not motile, such as barnacles and clams.

Sex Determination

Mammalian sex determination is determined genetically by the presence of X and Y chromosomes. Individuals homozygous for X (XX) are female and heterozygous individuals (XY) are male. The presence of a Y chromosome causes the development of male characteristics and its absence results in female characteristics. The XY system is also found in some insects and plants.

Avian sex determination is dependent on the presence of Z and W chromosomes. Homozygous for Z (ZZ) results in a male and heterozygous (ZW) results in a female. The W appears to be essential in determining the sex of the individual, similar to the Y chromosome in mammals. Some fish, crustaceans, insects (such as butterflies and moths), and reptiles use this system.

The sex of some species is not determined by genetics but by some aspect of the environment. Sex determination in some crocodiles and turtles, for example, is often dependent on the temperature during critical periods of egg development. This is referred to as environmental sex determination, or more specifically as temperature-dependent sex determination. In many turtles, cooler temperatures during egg incubation produce males and warm temperatures produce females. In some crocodiles, moderate temperatures produce males and both warm and cool temperatures produce females. In some species, sex is both genetic- and temperature-dependent.

Individuals of some species change their sex during their lives, alternating between male and female. If the individual is female first, it is termed protogyny or “first female,” if it is male first, its termed protandry or “first male.” Oysters, for example, are born male, grow, and become female and lay eggs; some oyster species change sex multiple times.

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