Sperm morphological diversity

Scott Pitnick, David J. Hosken, Tim R. Birkhead

Research output: Chapter in Book/Entry/PoemChapter

305 Scopus citations


This chapter reviews the current knowledge of variation in sperm morphology over several levels of biological organization: variation within males (both within and across ejaculates), among males, among populations, and among species, along with prevailing hypotheses addressing the adaptive significance of such variation. With regard to developmental mechanisms, three aspects of the physiology of sperm production serve to limit within-ejaculate variation in sperm phenotypes. First, the location of the testes and numerous aspects of testicular physiology of some taxa are clearly adaptations to maintain a homeostatic developmental environment for sperm. Second, developing spermatids may share cytoplasm. Third, sperm phenotypes are predominantly determined by testicular gene expression and hence the diploid genome of the male. Variation across ejaculates but within males can involve several traits including sperm numbers, overall semen quality and individual sperm quality. A special case of intramale variation in sperm form is found in species with sperm heteromorphism, in which different sperm forms are regularly produced by individuals. Differences among males in sperm morphology may derive from both genetic and environmental influences. Theories of condition-dependence basically posit that fitness-related traits are to a large extent dependent on an organism's underlying condition. Conclusions drawn from studies of sperm diversification between natural populations are reinforced by experimental evolution studies of sperm morphology in laboratory populations, as these studies address the evolvability of sperm traits and the nature of selection underlying sperm diversification. Furthermore, a discussion of evolutionary causes and consequences of sperm diversification, along with suggestions of fruitful areas for future exploration is presented. © 2009

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationSperm Biology
Number of pages81
ISBN (Print)9780123725684
StatePublished - 2009


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