Over the past decade, hundreds of studies have examined the abilities of whole organisms to modify their physiology and behaviour in response to environmental temperature changes; despite this, virtually nothing is known about the ability of sex cells to adjust to different temperature conditions. In fact, a recent meta-analysis based on studies of 309 species and 112 physiological and ecological traits found no studies examining the influence of temperature on gamete function. Because sex cells play a critical role in the adaptation and persistence of species, this represents a severe oversight in physiological studies of thermal adaptation. Our study examines whether sex cells can respond phenotypically to variation in the thermal environment that is experienced by the whole-organism. Specifically, we studied the thermal dependence of sperm swimming and the critical thermal limits of sperm cells in males of the poeciliid fish, Gambusia holbrooki. This species is well known for its ability to modify physiological function and maintains burst and sustained swimming performance and mating ability across a wide range of thermal conditions. In contrast, we found that sperm cells from male G. holbrooki did not adjust their physiological function as predicted by adaptive models. After acclimation of adult males to cool or warm temperatures, we found that the critical thermal limits of sperm function remained unchanged, as did the effect of temperature on sperm swimming performance. However, warm-acclimated fish had sperm with higher swimming speeds across all temperatures. The absence of phenotypic changes in the critical thermal limits of sperm or thermal dependence of sperm swimming performance is surprising given that whole-organism traits in G. holbrooki generally show improved performance after exposure to novel environments. As such an inability to thermally adjust gamete function may be widespread among other organisms, we urge biologists to investigate the generality of this result.
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