Sperm competition and the evolution of testes size in terrestrial mammalian carnivores


*Correspondence author. E-mail: g.iossa@bristol.ac.uk


  • 1Understanding the factors influencing variation in the degree of sperm competition is a key question underlying the mechanisms driving sexual conflict.
  • 2Previous behavioural and comparative studies have indicated that carnivores appear to have evolved under sperm competition but an analysis of the predictors of the level of sperm competition is missing.
  • 3In this study, we use phylogenetic comparative methods to investigate life-history parameters predicted to affect the degree of sperm competition in terrestrial carnivores using variation in relative testes size (RTS, after controlling for body size allometry) as a measure of the level of sperm competition. Due to a paucity of consistent data across taxa, we used three measures of RTS: testes mass (n = 40 species), testes and epididymes mass combined (n = 38), and testes volume (n = 48). We also created a derived data set (n = 79) with testes mass estimated from regression analyses on the other measures of testes size.
  • 4Carnivores with shorter mating seasons had relatively larger testes, consistent with the hypothesis that sperm competition is greater when the degree of female oestrous synchrony is high. This relationship was stronger in spontaneous versus induced ovulators, suggesting higher sperm competition levels in spontaneous ovulators. This is the first comparative study to show this within mammalian taxa. Neither social mating system nor reproductive lifespan were significantly associated with variation in RTS and hence are poor predictors of sperm competition levels.
  • 5None of the above relationships were found to be significant for the testes and epididymes mass combined data set, but our understanding of the role of the epididymis in sperm competition is too limited to draw any conclusions.
  • 6Finally, we consistently found a significant phylogenetic signal in all analyses, indicating that phylogeny has played a significant role in the evolution of carnivore testes size and, therefore, in shaping levels of sperm competition.
  • 7Our results shed new light into the factors affecting levels of sperm competition in terrestrial carnivores by showing that the degree of oestrous synchrony and ovulation type interact to predict variation in RTS.