In analyzing 90 years of breeding records from the San Diego Zoo, the researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine were able to prove for the first time what has been a fundamental theory of evolutionary biology: that mammals rely on some unknown physiologic mechanism to manipulate the sex ratios of their offspring as part of a highly adaptive evolutionary strategy.
“This is one of the holy grails of modern evolutionary biology — finding the data which definitively show that when females choose the sex of their offspring, they are doing so strategically to produce more grandchildren,” Joseph Garner, PhD, associate professor of comparative medicine and senior author of the study, said.
The results applied across 198 different species.
The scientists assembled three-generation pedigrees of more than 2,300 animals and found that grandmothers and grandfathers were able to strategically choose to give birth to sons, if those sons would be high-quality and in turn reward them with more grandchildren. The process is believed to be largely controlled by the females, Garner said.
“You can think of this as being girl power at work in the animal kingdom,” he said.
“We like to think of reproduction as being all about the males competing for females, with females dutifully picking the winner. But in reality females have much more invested than males, and they are making highly strategic decisions about their reproduction based on the environment, their condition and the quality of their mate.
“Amazingly, the female is somehow picking the sperm that will produce the sex that will serve her interests the most: The sperm are really just pawns in a game that plays out over generations,” he added.
The study builds on a classic theory first proposed in a 1973 paper by scientists Robert Trivers and Dan Willard, founders of the field of evolutionary sociobiology.
They challenged the conventional wisdom that sex determination in mammals is random, with parents investing equally in their offspring to generate a 50-50 sex ratio in the population.
Instead, they hypothesized that mammals are selfish creatures, manipulating the sex of their offspring in order to maximize their own reproductive success.
Thus, parents in good condition, based on health, size, dominance or other traits, would invest more in producing sons, whose inherited strength and bulk could help them better compete in the mating market and give them greater opportunities to produce more offspring.
Conversely, mothers in poor condition would likely play it safe, producing more daughters, whose productivity is physiologically limited.
Other hypotheses make similar predictions — that females who choose mates with particularly “good genes” (e.g. for attractiveness) should produce so called “sexy sons” as a result, Garner said.
The study is set to be published in the journal PLOS ONE.