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Anisogamy (also called heterogamy) is the form of sexual reproduction that involves the union or fusion of two gametes, which differ in size and/or form. (The related adjectives are anisogamous and anisogamic). The smaller gamete is considered to be male (sperm cell), whereas the larger gamete is regarded as female (egg cell).


There are several types of anisogamy. Both gametes may be flagellated and therefore motile. Alternatively, both of the gametes may be non-flagellated. The latter situation occurs in some algae and plants. In the red alga Polysiphonia, non-motile eggs are fertilized by non-motile sperm. In flowering plants, the gametes are non-motile cells within gametophytes.

The form of heterogamy that occurs in animals, including humans, is oogamy. In oogamy, a large, non-motile egg (ovum) is fertilized by a small, motile sperm (spermatozoon). The egg is optimized for longevity, whereas the small sperm is optimized for motility and speed. The size and resources of the egg cell allow for the production of pheromones, which attract the swimming sperm cells.

Anisogamy and Sexual Dimorphism

Anisogamy is a fundamental concept of sexual dimorphism that helps explain phenotypic differences between sexes. In most species a male and female sex exist, both of which are optimized for reproductive potential. Due to their differently sized and shaped gametes, both males and females have developed physiological and behavioral differences that optimize the individual’s fecundity. Since most egg laying females typically must bear the offspring and have a more limited reproductive cycle, this typically makes females a limiting factor in the reproductive success rate of males in a species. This process is also true for females selecting males, and assuming that males and females are selecting for different traits in partners, would result in phenotypic differences between the sexes over many generations. This hypothesis, known as the Bateman’s Principle, is used to understand the evolutionary pressures put on males and females due to anisogamy. Although this assumption has criticism, it is a generally accepted model for sexual selection within anisogamous species. The selection for different traits depending on sex within the same species is known as sex-specific selection, and accounts for the differing phenotypes found between the sexes of the same species. This sex-specific selection between sexes over time also lead to the development of secondary sex characteristics, which assist males and females in reproductive success.

In most species, both sexes choose mates based on the available phenotypes of potential mates. These phenotypes are species specific, resulting in varying strategies for successful sexual reproduction. For example, large males are sexually selected for in elephant seals for their large size helps the male fight off other males, but small males are sexually selected for in spiders for they can mate with the female more quickly while avoiding sexual cannibalism. However, despite the large range of sexually selected phenotypes, most anisogamous species follow a set of predictable desirable traits and selective behaviors based on general reproductive success models.

Female Phenotypes

For internal fertilizers, female investment is high in reproduction since they typically expend more energy throughout a single reproductive event. This can be seen as early as oogenesis, for the female sacrifices gamete number for gamete size to better increase the survival chances of the potential zygote; a process more energetically demanding than spermatogenesis in males. Oogenesis occurs in the ovary, a female specific organ that also produces hormones to prepare other female-specific organs for the changes necessary in the reproductive organs to facilitate egg delivery in external fertilizers, and zygote development in internal fertilizars. The egg cell produced is not only large, but sometimes even immobile, requiring contact with the more mobile sperm to instigate fertilization.

Since this process is very energy-demanding and time consuming for the female, mate choice is often integrated into the female’s behavior. Females will often be very selective of the males they choose to reproduce with, for the phenotype of the male can be indicative of the male’s physical health and heritable traits. Females employ mate choice to pressure males into displaying their desirable traits to females through courtship, and if successful, the male gets to reproduce. This encourages males and females of specific species to invest in courtship behaviors as well as traits that can display physical health to a potential mate. This process, known as sexual selection, results in the development of traits to ease reproductive success rather than individual survival, such as the inflated size of a termite queen. It is also important for females to select against potential mates that may have a sexually transmitted infection, for the disease could not only hurt the female’s reproductive ability, but also damage the resulting offspring.

Although not uncommon in males, females are more associated with parental care. Since females are on a more limited reproductive schedule than males, a female often invests more in protecting the offspring to sexual maturity than the male. Like mate choice, the level of parental care varies greatly between species, and is often dependent on the number of offspring produced per sexual encounter.

In most species such as Drosophila melanogaster, females can utilize sperm storage, a process by which the female can store excess sperm from a mate, and fertilize her eggs long after the reproductive event if mating opportunities drop or quality of mates decreases. By being able to save sperm from more desirable mates, the female gains more control over its own reproductive success, thus allowing for the female to be more selective of males as well as making the timing of fertilization potentially more frequent if males are scarce.

Male Phenotypes

For males of all species, the sperm cells they produce are optimized for ensuring fertilization of the female egg. These sperm cells are created through spermatogenesis, a form of gametogenesis that focuses on developing the most possible gametes per sexual encounter. Spermatogenesis occurs in the testes, a male specific organ that is also produces hormones that trigger the development of secondary sex characteristics. Since the male’s gametes are energetically cheap and abundant in every ejaculation, a male can greatly increase his sexual success by mating far more frequently than the female. Sperm, unlike egg cells, are also mobile, allowing for the sperm to swim towards the egg through the female’s sexual organs. Sperm competition is also a major factor in the development of sperm cells. Only one sperm can fertilize an egg, and since females can potentially reproduce with more than one male before fertilization occurs, producing sperm cells that are faster, more abundant, and more viable than that produced by other males can give a male reproductive advantage.

Since females are often the limiting factor in a species reproductive success, males are often expected by the females to search and compete for the female, known as intraspecific competition. This can be seen in organisms such as bean beetles, as the male that searches for females more frequently is often more successful at finding mates and reproducing. In species undergoing this form of selection, a fit male would be one that is fast, has more refined sensory organs, and spatial awareness.

Some secondary sex characteristics are not only meant for attracting mates, but also for competing with other males for copulation opportunities. Some structures, such as antlers in deer, can provide benefits to the male’s reproductive success by providing a weapon to prevent rival males from achieving reproductive success. However, other structures such as the large colorful tail feathers found in male peacocks, are a result of Fisherian Runaway as well as several more species specific factors. Due to females selecting for specific traits in males, over time, these traits are exaggerated to the point where they could hinder the male’s survivability. However, since these traits greatly benefit sexual selection, their usefulness in providing more mating opportunities overrides the possibility that the trait could lead to s shortening of its lifespan through predation or starvation. These desirable traits extend beyond physical body parts, and often extend into courtship behavior and nuptial gifts as well.

Although some behaviors in males are meant to work within the parameters of cryptic female choice, some male traits work against it. Strong enough males, in some cases, can force themselves upon a female, forcing fertilization and overriding female choice. Since this can often be dangerous for the female, an Evolutionary Arms Race between the sexes is often an outcome. For example, many males of species that have females with sperm storage organs, males will often have spiked genitalia, such as in bean weevils, to damage these organs, forcing the female to reproduce with the present male in order to produce offspring. Some species such as ground squirrels also employ mating plugs, which prevent other males from mating with the female.

For internal fertilizers, males often invest far less in parental care. This is because unlike external fertilizers such as salmon, internal fertilizers are never fully sure as to the paternal line of the father. If the male invested more in finding copulatory events rather than raising offspring, the males could potentially increase their overall reproductive success. For this reason, males often invest far less in parental care than females.


Many anisogamous external fertilizers select for different traits due to anisogamy due to the nature of their fertilization. Since fertilization is made visible to the male, male parental investment is often very high in these species. In certain species, such as the jawfish, the male actually protects the young in its mouth, eliminating its ability to eat temporarily. This level of parental investment would be not reproductively favorable for internal fertilizers, but since male external fertilizers are relatively sure of the parentage of the offspring, it is an effective reproductive investment.

Although uncommon, monogamy does exist within certain anisogamous species. The extent of the monogamy can vary, for some pairs only stay together for a single breeding season, while others form a lifelong pair-bond. Monogamy can be beneficial in certain circumstances, despite most species selecting against it, for it guarantees a healthy breeding partner and an extended parental bond.

In most cases, sexual selection impacts males of a given species more than it does females of the same species. However, certain species of bean beetle, as well as a wide variety of taxa, undergo role-reversed sex roles. In these role reversed sex roles, females actively search for males to breed with, placing larger sexual selection on the female than the male. This stands in contrast to the Bateman’s Principle, which claims anisogamy leads to a stronger sexual selection on males rather than females.

Evolution of anisogamy

Anisogamy is the phenomenon of fertilization of large gametes (egg cells, ova) by (or with) small gametes (sperm cells: spermatozoa or spermatia). Gamete size difference is the fundamental difference between females and males. Anisogamy first evolved in multicellular haploid species after the differentiation of different mating types had already been established. However, in Ascomycetes, anisogamy evolved from isogamy before mating types.

The three main theories for the evolution of anisogamy are gamete competition, gamete limitation, and intracellular conflicts, but the last of these three is not well supported by current evidence. Both gamete competition and gamete limitation assume that anisogamy originated through disruptive selection acting on an ancestral isogamous population with external fertilization, due to a trade-off between larger gamete number and gamete size (which in turn affects zygote survival), because the total resource one individual can invest in reproduction is assumed to be fixed.

The first formal, mathematical theory proposed to explain the evolution of anisogamy was based on gamete limitation: this model assumed that natural selection would lead to gamete sizes that result in the largest population-wide number of successful fertilizations. If it is assumed that a certain amount of resources provided by the gametes are needed for the survival of the resulting zygote, and that there is a trade-off between the size and number of gametes, then this optimum was shown to be one where both small (male) and large (female) gametes are produced. However, these early models assume that natural selection acts mainly at the population level, something that is today known to be a very problematic assumption.

The first mathematical model to explain the evolution of anisogamy via individual level selection, and one that became widely accepted was the theory of gamete or sperm competition. Here, selection happens at the individual level: those individuals that produce more (but smaller) gametes also gain a larger proportion of fertilizations simply because they produce a larger number of gametes that 'seek out' those of the larger type. However, because zygotes formed from larger gametes have better survival prospects, this process can again lead to the divergence of gametes sizes into large and small (female and male) gametes. The end result is one where it seems that the numerous, small gametes compete for the large gametes that are tasked with providing maximal resources for the offspring.

Some recent theoretical work has challenged the gamete competition theory, by showing that gamete limitation by itself can lead to the divergence of gamete sizes even under selection at the individual level. While this is possible, it has also been shown that gamete competition and gamete limitation are the ends of a continuum of selective pressures, and they can act separately or together depending on the conditions. These selection pressures also act in the same direction (to increase gamete numbers at the expense of size) and at the same level (individual selection). Theory also suggests that gamete limitation could only have been the dominant force of selection for the evolutionary origin of the sexes under quite limited circumstances, and the presence on average of just one competitor can makes the 'selfish' evolutionary force of gamete competition stronger than the 'cooperative' force of gamete limitation even if gamete limitation is very acute (approaching 100% of eggs remaining unfertilized).

There is then a relatively sound theory base for understanding this fundamental transition from isogamy to anisogamy in the evolution of reproduction, which is predicted to be associated with the transition to multicellularity. Some comparative empirical evidence for the gamete competition theories exists, although it is difficult to use this evidence to fully tease apart the competition and limitation theories because their testable predictions are similar. It has also been claimed that some of the organisms used in such comparative studies do not fit the theoretical assumptions well.


Anisogamy Wikipedia

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