Role of the epididymis in sperm competition


Dr Russell C. Jones, Discipline of Biological Sciences, The University of Newcastle, Callaghan 2308, Australia. Tel: +61-2-4921-5702 Fax: +61-2-4921-6923 E-mail:


Although it is generally understood that the testes recruited kidney ducts for reproductive function during the evolution of vertebrates, little is understood of the biological significance of the adaptation. In the context of the evolution of the mammalian epididymis, this report provides evidence that a major role of the epididymis is to enhance a male's chance of achieving paternity in a competitive mating system. A unique example of sperm cooperation in monotremes is used as evidence that the epididymis produces sperm competition proteins to form groups of 100 sperm into bundles that have a forward motility nearly thrice that of individual spermatozoa. As it required 3-h incubation in vitro under capacitation conditions to release motile sperm from the bundles, it is suggested that the monotremes provide an example of capacitation that is quite different from capacitation in higher mammals. It is suggested that variation between species in the intensity of sperm competition could explain the variation that occurs between species in the amount of post-testicular sperm maturation and storage in the epididymis, an explanation of why the human epididymis does not play as important a role in reproduction as the epididymis of most mammals.