Is sexual dimorphism affected by the combined action of prenatal stress and sex ratio?
Uller T., Meylan S., De Fraipont M., Clobert J.
During embryonic development, offspring are exposed to hormones of both maternal and sibling origin. Maternal stress increases offspring exposure to corticosterone, and, in polytocous animals, the sex ratio or intrauterine position can influence the levels of androgens and estrogens experienced by the offspring. Such hormone exposure has the potential to influence many important morphological and behavioural aspects of offspring, in particular sexually dimorphic traits. Although well known in rodents, the impact of prenatal hormone exposure in other vertebrates is poorly documented. We experimentally investigated the relationship between maternal stress, population density, sex ratio (a surrogate for the degree of exposure to steroids produced by siblings), and sexual dimorphism in a viviparous lizard, Lacerta vivipara. Our results show that prenatal sex ratios have consequences for sexually dimorphic morphology (ventral scale count) in both sexes, but with no effect of maternal stress or any interaction between the two. Embryonic steroid exposure can potentially be an important factor in generating individual variation in natural populations of viviparous animals.