Effects of gamete traits on fertilization in the sea and the evolution of sexual dimorphism


THE evolution of egg and sperm1,2, and more derived forms of sexual dimorphism, is thought to be driven by sperm competition and postzygotic survival; males are limited by fertilizations, females by resources3. Evidence of sperm competition comes from internal fertilizers, or cases where sperm are deposited on eggs4, but in free-spawners, the ancestral mating strategy (refs 1,5 but see ref. 6), females are often sperm limited7,8. Laboratory experiments on sea urchins demonstrate that intraspecific differences in gamete attributes, such as egg size, can influence rates of fertilization. Field experiments in which gametes are released and recaptured demonstrate that the influence of gamete traits on fertilization is not overwhelmed by sea conditions, and that variation in gamete traits can have important fitness consequences. These results suggest a new mechanism for the evolution of anisogamy and sexual dimorphism, in which sperm limitation is important, and natural selection for enhanced fertilization acts on females as well as males.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1

    Parker, G. A. in Sperm Competition and the Evolution of Animal Mating Systems (ed. Smith, R. L.) 1–59 (Academic, New York, 1984).

  2. 2

    Maynard Smith, J. & Szathmary, E. The Major Transitions in Evolution (W. H. Freeman, Oxford, 1995).

  3. 3

    Bateman, A. J. Heredity 2, 349–368 (1948).

  4. 4

    Arnold, S. J. Am. Nat. 144, S126–S149 (1994).

  5. 5

    Wray, G. A. in Ecology of Marine Invertebrate Larvae (ed. McEdward, L.) 412–448 (CRC, Boca Raton, FL, 1995).

  6. 6

    Rouse, R. & Fitzhugh, K. Zool. Scripta 23, 271–312 (1994).

  7. 7

    Levitan, D. R. in Ecology of Marine Invertebrate Larvae (ed. McEdward, L.) 123–156 (CRC, Boca Raton, FL, 1995).

  8. 8

    Levitan, D. R. & Petersen, C. Trends Ecol. Evol. 10, 228–231 (1995).

  9. 9

    Levitan, D. R. Am. Nat. 141, 517–536 (1993).

  10. 10

    Benzie, J. A. H. & Dixie, P. Biol. Bull. 186, 153–167 (1994).

  11. 11

    Denny, M. W. & Shibata, M. F. Am. Nat. 134, 859–889 (1989).

  12. 12

    Vance, R. R. Am. Nat. 107, 339–352 (1973).

  13. 13

    Smith, C. C. & Fretwell, S. D. Am. Nat. 108, 499–506 (1974).

  14. 14

    Levitan, D. R. Am. Nat. 148, 174–188 (1996).

  15. 15

    Scudo, F. M. Evolution 21, 285–291 (1967).

  16. 16

    Vogel, H., Czihak, G., Chang, P. & Wolf, W. Math. Biosci. 58, 189–216 (1982).

  17. 17

    Mundy, C. N. et al. Biol. Bull. 186, 168–171 (1994).

  18. 18

    Rumrill, S. S. Ophelia 32, 163–198 (1990).

Download references

Author information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Levitan, D. Effects of gamete traits on fertilization in the sea and the evolution of sexual dimorphism. Nature 382, 153–155 (1996). https://doi.org/10.1038/382153a0

Download citation

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.