Arxiu d'etiquetes: reproduction

Animal genitalia: birds and fish

The function of the reproductive system is apparently simple: to transmit the genes to the next generation. Why does it has so different and curious shapes in all kinds of animals? Would not  be enough with a simple sperm-emitting channel and a simple receiver? Find out in this post different shapes and reproductive strategies of birds and fish. If you want to learn about amphibia, reptile and mammal genitalia, click here.

ANIMALS’ SEX LIFE

Animals have different breeding strategies. In elementary school we learned that the fertilization can be:

  • External (outside the female’s body)
  • Internal (inside the female’s body)

And according to where the embryo develops the species are:

  • Oviparous: in an egg hatching outside the mother’s body (most fish, amphibians and reptiles)
  • Ovoviviparous: in an egg that hatch inside the mother’s body (sharks, vipers, boas…)
  • Viviparous: in a womb inside the body of the mother.

In high school we learned that there are strategists species:

  • r-strategists: they do not care for the offspring, which suffers a high mortality at birth. To compensate, they lay lots of eggs. They are usually short-live animals that quickly reach sexual maturity (invertebrates, fish, amphibians …)
  • K-strategists: they dedicate more energy to the care of the breeding, reason why they assure their survival and therefore the number of offspring in each laying or delivery is lower. Usually they are animals of longer life (dog, elephant, human …).

But if we analyze the reproduction in detail, it is not as simple as this. The sexual life of invertebrates is full of unlikely strategies to ensure fertilization, but we will talk about them another time and now we will focus on birds and fish.

THE EVOLUTION OF GENITALIA

The reproductive organs seem to have been the most diverse and most rapidly changed throughout evolution, giving rise to structures of almost every shape and size imaginable. If we believe that the only function is to give sperm, to receive it and to transport it to the ovule, we may be surprised by such diversity. In fact, the reproductive apparatus does much more than that and that is why the anatomy is so different between different animal groups.

Some insects, for example, use their penis for courtship, others use it to make sound and transmit vibrations to the female during mating. If the female likes the music, she will allow the male to take care of her offspring. Females also have adaptations to administer the sperm, like some flies, that can keep the sperm of different males in different receptacles of his reproductive apparatus.

Penis with bristles of the beetle Acanthoscelides obtectus. Source

The use of the penis in courtship and mating by the male and the administration of sperm in females would be two reasons that would explain the complexity of animal genitalia. The competition to ensure that a male’s sperm is actually the one that fertilizes all the female eggs would be another, with strategies as radical as plugging the ducts of the female once inseminated so that no other male can access it.

We will focus on this article on the genitals of fish and birds, do not miss the following post on amphibians, reptiles and mammals.

FISH GENITALIA

Although in most fish the fertilization is external, some have structures or pseudopenises to put the sperm inside the female.

SHARKS AND RAYS

They have the pelvic fins modified into two appendages called pterigopods or claspers, with which they introduce the sperm into the female.

Male shark (left) and female shark (right). Source

During copulation only one is used, which is filled with water thanks to a structure called siphon to expel it under pressure mixed with the sperm. According to the species, the young can be born from the mother’s body or from an egg.

Birth of a shark and fertilized egg. Source

POECIILIDAE FISH

Fish of the family Poeciliidae (guppys, mollys, platys, xhipos…), well known in aquarism, have the anal fin modified in a copulatory structure called gonopodium. They do not lay eggs, but the offspring are born directly from the mother’s body.

Male and female guppy. Source

PRIAPIUM FISH

It is a family of fish (Phallostethidae) that present the copulatory organ under the head. They mate face to face with the female, a thing almost unique in animals that live underwater. With the priapium they are anchored to the female and fertilize the eggs internally for a longer time than usual in other species.

Phallostethus cuulong male, discovered in Vietnam.. Source

Other curiosities in fish are possession of both sexes (hermaphroditism) or sex change, as in clown fish.

LOPHIIFORMES FISH

The best known representative of the Lophiiformes is the monkfish. In this order of fish, males are much smaller than females and they latch to females with their teeth, because of the difficulty of finding a mate in the abyssal bottoms. As time passes by, the male is physically fused to the female. He loses its eyes and its internal organs, except the testicles. A female may have six or more males (pairs of testicles) fused in her body.

Lophiiforme with a fused male. Source

BIRD GENITALIA

Most bird species (97%) do not have a penis and fertilization is performed with cloaca-cloaca contact (cloacal kiss, or cloacal apposition), a conduit that is used both as a reproductive and excretory system.

Left: urogenital apparatus of the male: F) testis, B) vas deferens, A) kidney, E) ureter, C) urodeum of the sewer. Right: urogenital apparatus of the female: A) ovary with mature follicle, F) infundibulum, E) oviduct, B) kidney, C) ureter, D) cloacal urodeum.Source

There are different hypotheses by which birds are believed to have lost their penis during evolution (since their reptilian ancestors did have it): to lighten the weight during flight, to avoid infections, by chance during the evolutionary process or to the females had better control over whom to reproduce. It seems that the latter would be the most accepted, since for example ducks fly long distances and have large and heavy penises.

But some birds do have a penis, which unlike mammals and reptiles, goes into erection by filling it with lymph, not blood.

WATERFOWL GENITALIA

Ducks, geese and swans are among the few birds that have a penis. The vagina of the ducks is shaped like a spiral clockwise, so when the male penetrates the female with his penis also spiral counterclockwise, if she is not interested flexes his vaginal muscles and penis leaves her body.

Vagina (left) and penis (right) of Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos).Source

The vertebrate with the longest penis in proportion to its body is precisely a duck, the Argentine diving duck (Oxyura vittata). He keeps it rolled up inside, but in erection he can be twice as long (42.5 cm) as his body (20 cm).

Oxyura vittata male with penis out. Unknown author

Duck penises, in addition to their different sizes and curvatures, can be smooth or have spines or furrows. This variability is due to the competitive pressure to overcome the females’ vagina. Both genitals are a clear example of coevolution. If you want to know more about coevolution visit this post.

Vaginas with blind ducts, penises with spines to extract sperm from previous copulations… ducks have a real “war” for reproductive control. In monogamous species such as geese and swans, the reproductive apparatus is not so complex, but in more promiscuous species, such as ducks, they are more complex and with longer penises so that it can be guaranteed that the male who has fertilized the eggs is the one who will take care of the chicks.

RED-BILLED BUFFALO WEAVER GENITALIA

This African passerine (Bubalornis niger) has a pseudopenis 1.5 cm long. It does not have blood vessels nor spermatozoa, reason why apparently its function is to give pleasure to the female and to favor the attraction of the male. Males in colonies have longer pseudopenises than those living alone, so the evolution of this appendix could also be explained by male-male competition.

Red-billed buffalo weaver. Photo by Reg Tee

OSTRICHES AND RELATIVES

African ostriches (Sthrutio camelus) are from the Ratites family, which also includes kiwis, rheas (American ostriches), tinamous, emus and cassowaries. All of them have a penis, and except for tinamu, they are running birds.

Ostriches about to mate. Source

The genitalia of the cassowary are really very peculiar. We have already discovered in this post how exceptional this animal is. Both sexes have a phallic appendage, but it is not connected to any reproductive organ. In the case of males, it is invaginated in a sort of “vaginal cavity”. At the moment of the copulation, it comes out (as if we turned out the finger of a glove), but the sperm leaves the cloaca, that is, from the base of this pseudopenis, not from the tip. In the case of females, the phallic appendage (sometimes referred to as clitoris) is a little smaller than in males.

Cassowaries mating. You can watch the video here

These male-female characteristics have given rise to rituals and beliefs in the folklore of New Guinea. They consider the cassowary an androgynous creature of mixed genders, therefore powerful because they have the attributes of both sexes. The remote Bimin-Kuskusmin tribe (Central New Guinea) celebrates rituals where intersexual people are considered representatives of these animals, so they are revered and powerful. On the other hand, Mianmin people tells stories about a human woman with a penis that became a cassowary.

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REFERENCES

Anuncis

Immaculate Conception… in reptiles and insects

December’s bank holidays and Christmas’s holidays have in common in that the Immaculate Conception is celebrated in both. The biological phenomenon in which a female animal reproduces without mating with a male is called parthenogenesis and, even if there isn’t any proof that this could happen to human beings, virginal birth is a widely distributed thing throughout the animal kingdom. In this entry we’ll see how this incredible phenomenon happens and some species in which it appears.

WHAT IS PARTHENOGENESIS?

Parthenogenesis is a type of asexual reproduction in which the offspring comes from a non-fertilized ovum. Without fertilization (union of the oocyte’s and the sperm’s genetic material) the offspring won’t have any part of the father’s DNA (if there is a father). The resulting babies will be genetic copies (clones) of their mother.

532px-Haploid,_diploid_,triploid_and_tetraploidDuring fertilization, when the ovum and the sperm fuse together (both haploid cells, with just one copy of chromosomes, n chromosomes) a new individual is formed with a unique genetic combination, with DNA from its father and its mother (diploid, with two copies of each chromosome, 2n chromosomes in each cell). Triploid (3n) or tetraploid (4n) individuals only appear in asexual hybrid species, and most cases are non-viable. Images by Ehamberg.

In parthenogenetic animals, the lack of paternal genetic material must be compensated because in many species haploid foetuses are non-viable. In these species diploidy (2n chromosomes) is usually re-established through a process called automixis. Yet in some species, haploid individuals with parthenogenetic origins are viable and have no problems in surviving.

It is impossible to pose a general example for asexual reproduction, as it is widely distributed through very different animal groups and there are many cases with many differences among them. Bellow, we’ll present you some examples of different strategies used by animals to reproduce asexually.

HAPLODIPLOIDY IN BEES AND WASPS

Haplodiploidy is a phenomenon that appears in two insect orders, hymenopterans (bees, ants and wasps) and thysanopterans (thrips or stormbugs). In this sexual determination system, if the ovum is fertilized it will develop into a female while, if it isn’t fertilized a haploid male will be born.

Apis_Mellifera_Carnica_Queen_Bee_in_the_hiveColony of Carniolan honey bees (Apis mellifera carnica), a subspecies of hony bee from Eastern Europe. Photo by Levi Asay.

In the honey bee, when the queen bee mates with a drone (male bee), all the diploid individuals (2n) will became females, with DNA combined from the queen and the drone. By contrast, drones are born by parthenogenesis, in which an egg from the queen will develop into a haploid drone (n). This means that the individuals in a bee colony, descendants from the same queen, are much more closely related to each other than regular siblings (drones have 100% of their mother’s DNA). It is believed that this helped to the development of eusocial behaviours in different hymenopteran groups.

CYCLIC PARTHENOGENESIS

This kind of parthenogenesis is found in different invertebrate groups that can alternate between asexual and sexual reproduction during its life cycle depending on the environmental conditions.

1471-2164-14-412-1-lDiagram about the life cycle of a rotifer, in which parthenogenetic asexual reproduction during good environmental conditions is alternated with sexual reproductions with a haploid male during adverse conditions. Image extracted from Hanson et al. 2013.

Some invertebrate groups like aphids, present asexual parthenogenic reproduction from spring until early autumn, when conditions are favourable. During this stage in many populations we find only females that give birth to more females.

Fast motion video in which we can see how the aphids take advantage during good weather conditions to increase fast and efficiently the number of individuals asexually. Video by Neil Bromhall.

When autumn approaches, parthenogenetic females start giving birth to sexual males and females. Both sexes are born by parthenogenesis and have 100% of their mother’s DNA. Sexual winged individuals then disperse to avoid mating with their own siblings. These will mate and females will lay resistant eggs that will survive winter. In spring these eggs will hatch and give rise to a new generation of parthenogenetic females that will start the cycle again.

TRUE PARTHENOGENESIS IN SQUAMATES

The only vertebrates that show true parthenogenesis are the squamates, with about 50 lizard species and one snake being obligate parthenotes. These are unisexual species, all individuals being females that reproduce asexually without the intervention of any male. Also, there are many other species that, even if they usually reproduce sexually, are also able to reproduce asexually when there are no males available (facultative parthenogenesis).

DesertGrasslandWhiptailLizard_AspidoscelisUniparensDesert grassland whiptail lizard (Cnemidophorus uniparens) which, as its scientific name implies, is a parthenogenic species in which all specimens are female. Photo by Ltshears.

There are isolated cases of captive female sharks, snakes and Komodo dragons that have reproduced without fertilization or mating with a male. Yet, this is known as accidental parthenogenesis, because the high mortality of the offspring (surviving between 1/100.000 and 1/million) shows that it is probably due to a failure of the organism, more than an adaptive phenomenon.

ParthkomodoBaby Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) born by accidental parthenogenesis at Chester Zoo. Photo by Neil.

Females from the true parthenogenetic species produce haploid eggs (with n chromosomes) which eventually become diploid (2n chromosomes) by two consecutive division cycles during meiosis (automixis). In species with facultative parthenogenesis, diploidy is achieved by the fusion of the ovum with a haploid polar body that forms during meiosis.

Oogenesis-polar-body-diagramScheme of the formation of polar bodies during oogenesis, which may help parthenogenetic reptiles to regain their diploidy. Scheme by Studentreader.

True parthenogenesis is especially well-known in the Brahminy blind snake (Ramphotyphlops brahminus) and many species of lizards. In these species females generate clones of themselves. Parthenogenetic lizard species (like in amphibians) probably originated from a hybridization event between two sexual species. Many whiptail lizards (genera Cnemidophorus/Aspidoscelis) present unisexual species in which no males exist, from a hybridation process.

Ramphotyphlops_braminus_in_Timor-LesteBrahminy blind snake (Ramphotyphlops braminus), the only known unisexual ophidian, in which all specimens found to date are females. Photo taken from Kaiser et al. 2011.

The species Cnemidophorus uniparens is a parthenogenic unisexual species, which appeared asa result of the hybridization between C. inornatus and C. burti. The resulting hybrid reproduced again with C. inornatus, forming the triploid (3n) parthenote C. uniparens. The presence of triploid, tetraploid, etc. genomes is a common phenomenon between unisexual reptiles, as its hybrid origins sometimes prevents the mixing of genomes. Also, a greater chromosomal variability compensates the lack of genetic recombination.

Despite being unisexual, sexual behaviours have been observed in this species similar to bisexual species. In C. uniparens there are documented sexual behaviours in which one female takes the role of a male and “mounts” another female contacting their cloacae. It is known that mounted females increase their egg production after this fake copula. It is believed that from one year to the other females shift their roles of mounting or being mounted, varying from year to year the number of eggs laid.

Cnemidophorus-ThreeSpeciesThree species of whiptail lizards. The middle one, Cnemidophorus neomexicanus is an unisexual parthenogenic species, originated from the hybridization of two bisexual species, C. inornatus (left) and C. tigris (right). Photo by Alistair J. Cullum.

Even if they are true parthenogenetic species, many of these squamates keep their ability to add new DNA to their offspring. This is due to the fact that if there’s no genetic recombination by the fusion of the ovum and the spermatozoon, there’s a high risk of accumulating genetic mutations detrimental for the species. Yet parthenogenesis allows these species to quickly colonize new habitats, because it is not necessary for two individuals to find each other to procreate, and 100% of the population is able to reproduce.

As you can see, there is a great number of animals that don’t need males nor sex to reproduce. The existence of a similar process in human beings is pretty much improbable (no to say impossible). Besides, if 2000 years ago a woman would have given birth to a baby without fertilization, probably this would have been a girl, because it wouldn’t have been able to acquire the Y chromosome from anywhere. Yet, this doesn’t mean we cannot enjoy the upcoming holidays. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone!

REFERENCES

The following sources have been used during the elaboration of this entry:

Difusió-anglès

Bearded vulture: conservation of a unique bird

Last month a bearded vulture was born for the first time in Spain of parents bred in captivity and reintroduced into the wild. The bearded vulture is the only bird in the world that feeds almost exclusively on bones. Like the Iberian lynx, it is one of the emblematic animals of the Iberian Peninsula and it is endangered, so it is subject to various conservation and reintroduction programs. In this article, we encourage you to find out more about the bearded vulture and the spanish conservation projects.

DESCRIPTION

The bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) is a diurnal bird of prey popularly included in what is called vultures, scavenger and ghoul birds (they feed on dead animals). However, the bearded vulture is quite different from other vultures:

Quebrantahuesos (Gypaetus barbatus) adulto. )Foto de Jose Luis Ojeda)
Adult bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus). (Photo by Jose Luis Ojeda)

 

  • It is so highly specialized that 85% of their diet are bones (osteophague) of dead mammals such as wild ungulates (chamois) and domestic cattle (goats, sheep). It can swallow bones up to 25 cm, and if they are too large catches them, rises them to 20-40 m and crashes bones against the rocks into smaller pieces that can swallowIt also uses the same technique to break tortoise shells.
  • It is very large, with a wingspan up to 2.8 meters and a weitgh up to 7 kg.
  • In general it isn’t noisy: it just whistles if it is excited or during the mating season.
  • It hasn’t the typical plucked vulture head. Vultures have a few or no feathers on their heads to maintain an optimum hygiene after putting their head in dead animals. Due to its peculiar diet, the bearded vulture has more feathers on head and neck, with its characteristic beard” below the peak.
  • The plumage is the same for both sexes but changes with age. The typical reddish and yellowish adults plumage is due to their habit of bathing in mud rich in iron oxides, otherwise they will had a white breast.
Fases del plomatge del trencalòs, segons Adam i Llopis (2003). (Imatge de © X. Parellada.)
Plumage phases of the bearded vulture, Adam and Llopis (2003). (Image by © X. Parellada.)

In this video (5 minutes, catalan) you can see bearded vultures in flight, breaking bones, engulfing them, raising a chick in the nest and bathing in mud.

REPRODUCTION

Bearded vultures nests on ledges and natural rock caves in the mountainous and rugged areas where they live. They have stable partner for life from age 7 and the reproductive cycle has different stages:

  • Pre-laying (September to November): nest building (covering it with branches, wool, feathers, bones ), defense of territory and sexual activity.
  • Incubation (December-February): they lay one or two eggs with a time difference of 6 days. Both sexes participate in the incubation for 53 days.
  • Nurturing (March-August): the largest chick kills his brother (fraticidal violence) to ensure survival. Parents provide food and when the chick leaves the nest (June-July), learn from them to find and prepare food until their emancipation.
  • Emancipation (January): displacement (thousands of kilometers) and dating back to the land where it was born to breed (philopatric instinct).
Seguimiento de nidos naturales mediante cámaras. (Foto: FCQ)
Tracking of natural nests with cameras. (Photo: Foundation for the Conservation of the Bearded Vulture)

DISTRIBUTION

Subspecies Gypaetus barbatus meridonalis is distributed by the South and East Africa, while Gypaetus barbatus barbatus by North Africa and parts of Eurasia (see map).

In the Iberian Peninsula is found naturally only in the Pyrenees (Catalonia, Aragon and Navarra). Spain is the European country with more breeding couples registered (about 130, 2014 data).

gypaetus barbatus, quebrantahuesos, trencalòs, berded vulture distribution, distribución
Bearded vulture distribution. In red, areas in which has been reintroduced . (Image by Mario, Wikimedia).

THREATS

Bearded vulture populations are declining. It is ranked globally asnear threatened” in the IUCN Red List and “endangered” in the Spanish Catalogue of Endangered Species. Current threats they face are:

  • Death by poisoning (illegal baits, poisoned animal consumption, consumption of remains of lead hunting ammunition plumbism).
  • Death by electrocution or collisions with power lines and wind turbines of wind farms.
  • Poaching
  • Habitat loss and decreasing of reproductive efficiency because of the humanization of the medium (urbanisation, adventure sports )
  • Reduction of food (cattle in stables, obligation to bury the corpses )
Quebrantahuesos muerto por envenenamiento. (Foto: DARPAMN)
Bearded vulture dead by poisoning. (Photo: DARPAMN)

CONSERVATION IN SPAIN

Due to the limited distribution of populations, their low number and difficulty to colonize new territories, in 2014 thirteen autonomous communities signed a protocol for the recovery of vultures in Spain. The most prominent action of this protocol is to strengthen the National Strategy for the Conservation of the Bearded Vulture in Spain (started in 2000) and the Programme Captive Breeding (2001), with actions such as the revaluation of rural areas, supplementary feeding and support for traditional farming practices. This strategy also involves the reintroduction in historic areas where the bearded vulture has been extinguished:

WHAT IS HACKING?

Hacking or rural upbringing is a technique that involves the release of captive-bred animals in an area that the bird assimilates as its birthplace. If successful, the bearded vulture returns to settle and breed. This technique did not has a conservationist origin, since it was developed by falconers in the Medieval Age. Falconry (hunting with birds of prey) are also currently used for wildlife control at airports or cities.

In falconry hacking consists in lefting in an elevated cage chicks that can feed by themselves. Falconer feeds them without being seen. After a few days they open the cage, using it as a basis for learning to fly. They are still feeding them until they learn to hunt by themselves and leave the cage. The young ones connect the cage as its birthplace so it will always return.

Alimentación de un pollo con un señuelo para evitar el contacto humano. Foto: Fundación para la Conservación del Quebrantahuesos
Feeding a chick with a decoy to avoid human contact and make its life possible in the wild. (Photo: Foundation for the Conservation of the Bearded Vulture)

The center managed by the Gypaetus Foundation is based on the natural breeding, with minimal human intervention. Parents raise and feed their young from the second week of hatching. To monitor the nests a video surveillance system is used.

Since 2006, 31 bearded vultures have been released from captive breeding and each one is tracked by GPS transmitters. Currently 15 individuals are still sending signals (9 were killed and 7 stopped working). As said in the introduction, the good news is that last month was born the first chick result of released individuals (Tono and Blimunda) by hacking technique.

For more information, check out this documentary (in spanish) about the bearded vulture and its conservation (El bosque protector. Fauna amenazada, El Quebrantahuesos, 29 minutes).

REFERENCES

MIREIA QUEROL ALL YOU NEED IS BIOLOGY