Sperm production, storage, and the synchronization of male and female reproductive cycles in the iteroparous, stripe-faced dunnart (Sminthopsis macroura; Marsupialia): relationship to reproductive strategies within the Dasyuridae

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Abstract

Seasonal changes in the number and distribution of spermatozoa in males, and annual changes in the distribution of litters and embryos in females were examined in the iteroparous dasyurid marsupial, Sminthopsis macroura, in captivity. Total number of sperm in the testis (0.53 × 106 sperm/testis) and epididymidis (0.54 × 106 sperm/epididymidis) were extremely low when compared with those in other marsupials and eutherian mammals. Testicular sperm production and epididymal sperm reserves were high between May and October and declined to a minimum in March. These changes reflected monthly changes in testicular and epididymal weight and testis morphology. Data on changing epididymal sperm distribution suggest that sperm storage in the cauda epididymidis is limited and that few sperm are required for successful insemination. Litters were born between June and January, with most litters occurring between July and October. Second pregnancies occurred between October and January, with a peak in December. The data indicate that the timing of mating activity and litter production by S. macroura correspond very closely with the period of maximum sperm production by males. The synchrony of these events contrasts dramatically with that of similar-sized semelparous dasyurid species. It is hypothesized that testicular failure prior to the mating season, copulatory behaviour, and possibly male die-off in dasyurid marsupials are related to the degree of competition between males for mates and, hence, population density and environmental predictability. These data suggest that intermale sperm competition is affected by the periods of female receptivity and the length of sperm storage in the female reproductive tract. Fundamental differences in the reproductive strategies of iteroparous and semelparous dasyurid marsupials are discussed.

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