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Failed sperm development as a reproductive isolating barrier between species



Hybrid male sterility is a common reproductive isolating barrier between species. Yet, little is known about the actual developmental causes of this phenomenon, especially in naturally hybridizing species. We sought to evaluate the developmental causes of hybrid male sterility, using spadefoot toads as our study system. Plains spadefoot toads (Spea bombifrons) and Mexican spadefoot toads (S. multiplicata) hybridize where they co-occur in the southwestern USA. Hybrids are viable, but hybrid males suffer reduced fertility. We compared testes size and developmental stages of sperm cell maturation between hybrid males and males of each species. We found that testes of hybrid males did not differ in mean size from pure-species males. However, hybrids showed a greater range of within-individual variation in testes size than pure-species males. Moreover, although hybrids produced similar numbers of early stage sperm cells, hybrids produced significantly fewer mature spermatozoids than pure-species males. Interestingly, an introgressed individual produced numbers of live sperm comparable to pure-species males, but the majority of these sperm cells were abnormally shaped and non-motile. These results indicate that hybrid incompatibilities in late sperm development serve as a reproductive isolating barrier between species. The nature of this breakdown highlights the possibilities that hybrid males may vary in fertility and that fertility could possibly be recovered in introgressed males.