Sexual Reproduction

Sexual reproduction is the combination of reproductive cells from two individuals to form genetically unique offspring. The nature of the individuals that produce the two kinds of gametes can vary, having for example separate sexes or both sexes in each individual. Sex determination, the mechanism that determines which sex an individual develops into, also can vary.


Hermaphroditism occurs in animals in which one individual has both male and female reproductive systems. Invertebrates such as earthworms, slugs, tapeworms, and snails (Figure 13.5) are often hermaphroditic. Hermaphrodites may self-fertilize, but typically they will mate with another of their species, fertilizing each other and both producing offspring. Self-fertilization is more common in animals that have limited mobility or are not motile, such as barnacles and clams. Many species have specific mechanisms in place to prevent self-fertilization, because it is an extreme form of inbreeding and usually produces less fit offspring.

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Figure 13.5 Many (a) snails are hermaphrodites. When two individuals (b) mate, they can produce up to 100 eggs each. (credit a: modification of work by Assaf Shtilman; credit b: modification of work by “Schristia”/Flickr)

Sex Determination

Mammalian sex is determined genetically by the combination of X and Y chromosomes. Individuals homozygous for X (XX) are female and heterozygous individuals (XY) are male. In mammals, 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.

Bird sex determination is dependent on the combination of Z and W chromosomes. Homozygous for Z (ZZ) results in a male and heterozygous (ZW) results in a female. Notice that this system is the opposite of the mammalian system because in birds the female is the sex with the different sex chromosomes. 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 the ZW system.

More complicated chromosomal sex determining systems also exist. For example, some swordtail fish have three sex chromosomes in a population.

The sex of some other species is not determined by chromosomes, but by some aspect of the environment. Sex determination in alligators, some turtles, and tuataras, for example, is dependent on the temperature during the middle third 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, while in many other species of turtles, the reverse is true. In some crocodiles and some turtles, moderate temperatures produce males and both warm and cool temperatures produce females.

Individuals of some species change their sex during their lives, switching from one to the other. If the individual is female first, it is termed protogyny or “first female,” if it is male first, it is termed protandry or “first male.” Oysters are born male, grow in size, and become female and lay eggs. The wrasses, a family of reef fishes, are all sequential hermaphrodites. Some of these species live in closely coordinated schools with a dominant male and a large number of smaller females. If the male dies, a female increases in size, changes sex, and becomes the new dominant male.

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