The adaptive significance of temperature-dependent sex determination

experimental tests with a short-lived lizard

Daniel A. Warner*, Richard Shine

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

76 Citations (Scopus)


Why is the sex of many reptiles determined by the temperatures that these animals experience during embryogenesis, rather than by their genes? The Charnov-Bull model suggests that temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD) can enhance maternal fitness relative to genotypic sex determination (GSD) if offspring traits affect fitness differently for sons versus daughters and nest temperatures either determine or predict those offspring traits. Although potential pathways for such effects have attracted much speculation, empirical tests largely have been precluded by logistical constraints (i.e., long life spans and late maturation of most TSD reptiles). We experimentally tested four differential fitness models within the Charnov-Bull framework, using a short-lived, early-maturing Australian lizard (Amphibolurus muricatus) with TSD. Eggs from wild-caught females were incubated at a range of thermal regimes, and the resultant hatchlings raised in large outdoor enclosures. We applied an aromatase inhibitor to half the eggs to override thermal effects on sex determination, thus decoupling sex and incubation temperature. Based on relationships between incubation temperatures, hatching dates, morphology, growth, and survival of hatchlings in their first season, we were able to reject three of the four differential fitness models. First, matching offspring sex to egg size was not plausible because the relationship between egg (offspring) size and fitness was similar in the two sexes. Second, sex differences in optimal incubation temperatures were not evident, because (1) although incubation temperature influenced offspring phenotypes and growth, it did so in similar ways in sons versus daughters, and (2) the relationship between phenotypic traits and fitness was similar in the two sexes, at least during preadult life. We were unable to reject a fourth model, in which TSD enhances offspring fitness by generating seasonal shifts in offspring sex ratio: that is, TSD allows overproduction of daughters (the sex likely to benefit most from early hatching) early in the nesting season. In keeping with this model, hatching early in the season massively enhanced body size at the beginning of the first winter, albeit with a significant decline in probability of survival. Thus, the timing of hatching is likely to influence reproductive success in this short-lived, early maturing species; and this effect may well differ between the sexes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2209-2221
Number of pages13
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2005
Externally publishedYes


  • Amphibolurus muricatus
  • Aromatase inhibitor
  • Charnov-Bull model
  • Environmental sex determination
  • Jacky dragon
  • Phenotypes
  • Survival
  • Timing of hatching

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