Reproductive Ecology Stacking the Deck In the Game of Life
Boy or girl? Many of us won't admit to having
Yet other mammals, including some primates, sometimes have a
distinct preference for offspring of one gender or the other, depending
upon the conditions for survival. Their bodies make sure they get what
Strange but true.
"Parents who can adjust their reproductive investment to favor young of a particular
sex may do so when environmental or social conditions favor the survival and
fecundity of one sex over the other," according Martha McClintock, an animal
biologist at The University of Chicago, whose research program was initiated
and sustained with NSF support. McClintock and other animal biologists are funded
through NSF's Directorate for Biological Sciences.
This sort of adjusting is called sex ratio biasing. Until recently, it was more
theory than proven fact. But when scientists began observing animals in their
natural environments--that is, outside the typical laboratory--sex ratio
biasing became evident.
In baboon society, daughters inherit their mothers' rank but sons earn their rank.
Credit: Jeanne and Stuart Altmann
Here is how it works: Over time, a species' male-to-female ratio hovers near
50-50. The balance may shift at any particular time, however, depending on the
stresses--or the relative absence of stress--in the species' ecological and
social environment. The shifts, which McClintock and her student Leslie Hornig
would call "adjustments of the reproductive investment," serve the ultimate goal
of improving the individual's chances for having more surviving grandchildren.
Grandchildren are important since, genetically speaking, the ultimate goal of
life is to reproduce and have those offspring long enough to reproduce as well.
VIVE LA DIFFERENCE
To understand how the balance between the ratios
shifts, consider the basic reproductive differences between male and female
rats. Most female rats reproduce at regular intervals, having several litters
per breeding season. A male rat, on the other hand, may mate with many females
if he is a dominant male, or may fail to mate entirely if he is not dominant.
When food is plentiful, male and female offspring are produced in equal numbers.
In times of famine, female offspring predominate.
The reason is that when food is scarce, both mother and offspring are weak. A
son is not likely to grow strong enough to become a dominant male. A weakling
son probably will not mate often. In stark genetic terms, he is hardly worth
the effort. On the other hand, daughters--even weak ones--are likely to reproduce.
Therefore, when pregnant females are consistently hungry or otherwise in less
than tip-top shape, they simply abort male fetuses at an early stage.
With her laboratory full of Norway rats, McClintock worked on the stress theory
and a corollary--mothers who give birth to pups out of sequence with the rest
of the pack are likely to have a female bias in their offspring.
McClintock and her students Mark Blumberg and Julie Mennella found that mother
rats suckle their cohorts' pups, sharing their milk and food to the benefit of
all. A pup born out of sync is at a disadvantage because there are no surrogate
mothers around. As in times of general famine, mothers reproducing out of sync
tend to abort potentially weakened and costly sons. They produce the same number
of pups per litter, but the litter is female biased.
Martha McClintock studies rats to learn how external conditions, such as social behavior, influence gender ratio in a litter. (This rat is a pet, not a research subject.)
Credit: Steve Kagan
WE WANT YOU TO FEEL AT HOME
To study the rats' sex lives and maternal behavior, McClintock
abolished most of the usual laboratory cages and gave her naked-tail subjects
the run of the place. Her Norway rats -- normally residents of alleys, dumps,
and sewers -- make themselves at home in her lab's plethora of pipes, newspapers,
and other trash.
The rats need to be in a comfortable environment, says McClintock, or she cannot
get an accurate look at their reproductive behavior. In fact, she has obtained
a $2 million grant from NSF to help build an animal-friendly research facility
dedicated to biophysiology.
With the rats in their semi-natural setting, she and her student Sarah Bacon
have found that sex ratio is affected by such variables as:
- Timing of insemination. Males are more likely to be born from inseminations
that precede ovulation, while females are more likely to result when insemination
and ovulation coincide.
- Number of other suckling pups. When pups suckle during pregnancy, the proportion
of males in the next litter is higher than when there are no suckling pups
- Size of litter. In large litters (more than 13), the number of females
increases while the number of males stays at the average.
ANOTHER APPROACH: SUPER MOM
Some mechanisms for sex ratio biasing may originate in
the generation prior to the one that needs them. A former NSF grantee John Vandenbergh
of North Carolina State University found that sex ratio biasing in house mice
is influenced by the experiences of the mother herself in utero.
In most animals, humans included, the female brain is the basic model. Males
develop their own distinct brain circuitry only after being bathed with testosterone.
Females surrounded in the womb by male siblings also get hit by testosterone.
These so-called "masculinized" females grow up to be more aggressive than other
females, and they maintain a bigger home base or territory. Masculinized females
also have more sons, relative to daughters, than do other females.
In good times, when food and other resources are plentiful, masculinized females
have no reproductive advantage--males do not seek them out.
But when populations are large and food is scarce, the advantage goes to mice
ready to fight for food, and the masculinized female comes out on top. Since
she can provide for herself and her offspring more effectively than her more
feminine cousins, her sons stand an improved chance of growing up to be strong,
RANK HAS ITS PRIVILEGES
Another long-term NSF-funded study brings sex ratio biasing
closer to home--to homo sapiens, that is.
Jeanne Altmann of The University of Chicago has examined social pecking orders
among our not-too-distant relatives, baboons.
She has learned that top-ranking female baboons have first choice of best foods
and reproduce at the youngest ages. For females, rank and its privileges are
Baboon mothers, consciously or not, pass on their rank to their daughters, who
keep it for life. Sons, on the other hand, switch ranks several times during
Altmann theorized--and then proved--that this societal setup realigns the
original goals of parents playing the gene game. It should be beneficial for
top-ranking females to have daughters, so that the daughters get the all-important
rank that enables them to eat and breed well. This in fact occurs.
Low-ranking females, on the other hand, are better off having sons, since sons
have a shot at becoming dominant, reproductive males. Again, the evidence bears
THE HUMAN ANIMAL
Humans are not above all of this. Nobody knows for certain
how much sex ratio biasing takes place, but some of Martha McClintock's discoveries
about rats certainly have parallels among homo sapiens. As with rats,
the probability of having a son or daughter changes with the timing of the insemination
-- sons are more likely when insemination occurs several days prior to ovulation.
Chances of producing a daughter increases as insemination approaches the time
Hundreds of other possibilities remain to be explored. To Altmann, the point
is to notice animals' sensitivity to stress in their lives. Unless we live in
a stress-free corner of the globe, our bodies may well have similar response
While choosing the gender of a fetus with any accuracy may still be a ways off,
we now know that the likelihood of having a son or daughter is more than a mere
flip of the coin. For humans, like baboons, rats, or mice, it may well be an
unconscious choice in the game of life.