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Background: Reptiles and amphibians provide untapped potential for discovering how a diversity of genetic pathways and environmental conditions are incorporated into developmental processes that can lead to similar functional outcomes. These groups display a multitude of reproductive strategies, and whereas many attributes are conserved within groups and even across vertebrates, several aspects of sexual development show considerable variation. Summary: In this review, we focus our attention on the development of the reptilian and amphibian ovary. First, we review and describe the events leading to ovarian development, including sex determination and ovarian maturation, through a comparative lens. We then describe how these events are influenced by environmental factors, focusing on temperature and exposure to anthropogenic chemicals. Lastly, we identify critical knowledge gaps and future research directions that will be crucial to moving forward in our understanding of ovarian development and the influences of the environment in reptiles and amphibians. Key Messages: Reptiles and amphibians provide excellent models for understanding the diversity of sex determination strategies and reproductive development. However, a greater understanding of the basic biology of these systems is necessary for deciphering the adaptive and potentially disruptive implications of embryo-by-environment interactions in a rapidly changing world.more » « less
Abstract Conservation of thermally sensitive species depends on monitoring organismal and population‐level responses to environmental change in real time. Epigenetic processes are increasingly recognized as key integrators of environmental conditions into developmentally plastic responses, and attendant epigenomic data sets hold potential for revealing cryptic phenotypes relevant to conservation efforts. Here, we demonstrate the utility of genome‐wide DNA methylation (DNAm) patterns in the face of climate change for a group of especially vulnerable species, those with temperature‐dependent sex determination (TSD). Due to their reliance on thermal cues during development to determine sexual fate, contemporary shifts in temperature are predicted to skew offspring sex ratios and ultimately destabilize sensitive populations. Using reduced‐representation bisulphite sequencing, we profiled the DNA methylome in blood cells of hatchling American alligators ( Alligator mississippiensis ), a TSD species lacking reliable markers of sexual dimorphism in early life stages. We identified 120 sex‐associated differentially methylated cytosines (DMCs; FDR < 0.1) in hatchlings incubated under a range of temperatures, as well as 707 unique temperature‐associated DMCs. We further developed DNAm‐based models capable of predicting hatchling sex with 100% accuracy (in 20 training samples and four test samples) and past incubation temperature with a mean absolute error of 1.2°C (in four test samples) based on the methylation status of 20 and 24 loci, respectively. Though largely independent of epigenomic patterning occurring in the embryonic gonad during TSD, DNAm patterns in blood cells may serve as nonlethal markers of hatchling sex and past incubation conditions in conservation applications. These findings also raise intriguing questions regarding tissue‐specific epigenomic patterning in the context of developmental plasticity.more » « less
null (Ed.)The environment experienced during embryonic development is a rich source of phenotypic variation, as environmental signals have the potential to both inform adaptive plastic responses and disrupt normal developmental programs. Environment-by-embryo interactions are particularly consequential for species with temperature-dependent sex determination, a mode of sex determination common in non-avian reptiles and fish, in which thermal cues during a discrete period of development drive the formation of either an ovary or a testis. Here we examine the impact of thermal variation during incubation in combination with developmental exposure to a common endocrine-disrupting contaminant on fitness-related hatchling traits in the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis), a species with temperature-dependent sex determination. Using a factorial design, we exposed field-collected eggs to five thermal profiles (three constant temperatures, two fluctuating temperatures) and two environmentally relevant doses of the pesticide metabolite dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene; and we quantified incubation duration, sex ratios, hatchling morphometric traits, and growth (9–10 days post-hatch). Whereas dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene exposure did not generally affect hatchling traits, constant and fluctuating temperatures produced diverse phenotypic effects. Thermal fluctuations led to subtle changes in incubation duration and produced shorter hatchlings with smaller heads when compared to the constant temperature control. Warmer, male-promoting incubation temperatures resulted in larger hatchlings with more residual yolk reserves when compared to cooler, female-promoting temperatures. Together, these findings advance our understanding of how complex environmental factors interact with developing organisms to generate phenotypic variation and raise questions regarding the mechanisms connecting variable thermal conditions to responses in hatchling traits and their evolutionary implications for temperature-dependent sex determination.more » « less
Many ectotherms rely on temperature cues experienced during development to determine offspring sex. The first descriptions of temperature‐dependent sex determination (TSD) were made over 50 years ago, yet an understanding of its adaptive significance remains elusive, especially in long‐lived taxa.
One novel hypothesis predicts that TSD should be evolutionarily favoured when two criteria are met—(a) incubation temperature influences annual juvenile survival and (b) sexes mature at different ages. Under these conditions, a sex‐dependent effect of incubation temperature on offspring fitness arises through differences in age at sexual maturity, with the sex that matures later benefiting disproportionately from temperatures that promote juvenile survival.
The American alligator (
Alligator mississippiensis) serves as an insightful model in which to test this hypothesis, as males begin reproducing nearly a decade after females. Here, through a combination of artificial incubation experiments and mark‐recapture approaches, we test the specific predictions of the survival‐to‐maturity hypothesis for the adaptive value of TSD by disentangling the effects of incubation temperature and sex on annual survival of alligator hatchlings across two geographically distinct sites.
Hatchlings incubated at male‐promoting temperatures (MPTs) consistently exhibited higher survival compared to those incubated at female‐promoting temperatures. This pattern appears independent of hatchling sex, as females produced from hormone manipulation at MPT exhibit similar survival to their male counterparts.
Additional experiments show that incubation temperature may affect early‐life survival primarily by affecting the efficiency with which maternally transferred energy resources are used during development.
Results from this study provide the first explicit empirical support for the adaptive value of TSD in a crocodilian and point to developmental energetics as a potential unifying mechanism underlying persistent survival consequences of incubation temperature.
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null (Ed.)Synopsis An organism’s ability to integrate transient environmental cues experienced during development into molecular and physiological responses forms the basis for adaptive shifts in phenotypic trajectories. During temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD), thermal cues during discrete periods in development coordinate molecular changes that ultimately dictate sexual fate and contribute to patterns of inter- and intra-sexual variation. How these mechanisms interface with dynamic thermal environments in nature remain largely unknown. By deploying thermal loggers in wild nests of the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) over two consecutive breeding seasons, we observed that 80% of nests exhibit both male- and female-promoting thermal cues during the thermosensitive period, and of these nests, all exhibited both male- and female-promoting temperatures within the span of a single day. These observations raise a critical question—how are opposing environmental cues integrated into sexually dimorphic transcriptional programs across short temporal scales? To address this question, alligator embryos were exposed to fluctuating temperatures based on nest thermal profiles and sampled over the course of a daily thermal fluctuation. We examined the expression dynamics of upstream genes in the temperature-sensing pathway and find that post-transcriptional alternative splicing and transcript abundance of epigenetic modifier genes JARID2 and KDM6B respond rapidly to thermal fluctuations while transcriptional changes of downstream effector genes, SOX9 and DMRT1, occur on a delayed timescale. Our findings reveal how the basic mechanisms of TSD operate in an ecologically relevant context. We present a hypothetical hierarchical model based on our findings as well as previous studies, in which temperature-sensitive alternative splicing incrementally influences the epigenetic landscape to affect the transcriptional activity of key sex-determining genes.more » « less
null (Ed.)Species displaying temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD) are especially vulnerable to the effects of a rapidly changing global climate due to their profound sensitivity to thermal cues during development. Predicting the consequences of climate change for these species, including skewed offspring sex ratios, depends on understanding how climatic factors interface with features of maternal nesting behaviour to shape the developmental environment. Here, we measure thermal profiles in 86 nests at two geographically distinct sites in the northern and southern regions of the American alligator's ( Alligator mississippiensis ) geographical range, and examine the influence of both climatic factors and maternally driven nest characteristics on nest temperature variation. Changes in daily maximum air temperatures drive annual trends in nest temperatures, while variation in individual nest temperatures is also related to local habitat factors and microclimate characteristics. Without any compensatory nesting behaviours, nest temperatures are projected to increase by 1.6–3.7°C by the year 2100, and these changes are predicted to have dramatic consequences for offspring sex ratios. Exact sex ratio outcomes vary widely depending on site and emission scenario as a function of the unique temperature-by-sex reaction norm exhibited by all crocodilians. By revealing the ecological drivers of nest temperature variation in the American alligator, this study provides important insights into the potential consequences of climate change for crocodilian species, many of which are already threatened by extinction.more » « less
Abstract The avian transition from long to short, distally fused tails during the Mesozoic ushered in the Pygostylian group, which includes modern birds. The avian tail embodies a bipartite anatomy, with the proximal separate caudal vertebrae region, and the distal pygostyle, formed by vertebral fusion. This study investigates developmental features of the two tail domains in different bird groups, and analyzes them in reference to evolutionary origins. We first defined the early developmental boundary between the two tail halves in the chicken, then followed major developmental structures from early embryo to post-hatching stages. Differences between regions were observed in sclerotome anterior/posterior polarity and peripheral nervous system development, and these were consistent in other neognathous birds. However, in the paleognathous emu, the neognathous pattern was not observed, such that spinal nerve development extends through the pygostyle region. Disparities between the neognaths and paleognaths studied were also reflected in the morphology of their pygostyles. The ancestral long-tailed spinal nerve configuration was hypothesized from brown anole and alligator, which unexpectedly more resembles the neognathous birds. This study shows that tail anatomy is not universal in avians, and suggests several possible scenarios regarding bird evolution, including an independent paleognathous long-tailed ancestor.more » « less
The mechanisms connecting environmental conditions to plasticity in biological aging trajectories are fundamental to understanding individual variation in functional traits and life history. Recent findings suggest that telomere biology is especially dynamic during early life stages and has long‐term consequences for subsequent reproduction and survival. However, our current understanding is mostly derived from studies investigating ecological and anthropogenic factors separately, leaving the effects of complex environmental interactions unresolved. American alligators (
Alligator mississippiensis) are long‐lived apex predators that rely on incubation temperature during a discrete period during development and endocrine cues to determine sex, making them especially vulnerable to current climatic variability and exposure to anthropogenic contaminants interfering with hormone function. Here, we combine field studies with a factorial design to understand how the developmental environment, along with intrinsic biological variation contribute to persistent telomere variation. We found that exposure to a common endocrine disrupting contaminant, DDE, affects telomere length, but that the directionality is highly dependent upon incubation temperature. Variation in hatchling growth, underlies a strong clutch effect. We also assess concentrations of a panel of glucocorticoid hormones and find that contaminant exposure elicits an increase in circulating glucocorticoids. Consistent with emerging evidence linking stress and aging trajectories, GC levels also appear to trend with shorter telomere length. Thus, we add support for a mechanistic link between contaminants and glucocorticoid signalling, which interacts with ecological aspects of the developmental environment to alter telomere dynamics.