Mammals usually produce approximately equal numbers of sons and daughters, but there are exceptions to this general rule, as has been observed in ruminant ungulate species, where the sex-allocation hypothesis of Trivers and Willard has provided a rational evolutionary underpinning to adaptive changes in sex ratio. Here, we review circumstances whereby ruminants and other mammalian species, especially rodents and primates, appear able to skew the sex ratio of their offspring. We also discuss some of the factors, both nutritional and nonnutritional, that potentially promote such skewing. Work from our laboratory, performed on mice, suggests that age of the mother and maternal diet, rather than the maternal body condition per se, play directive roles in controlling sex ratio. In particular, a diet high in saturated fats but low in carbohydrate leads to the birth of significantly more male than female offspring in mature laboratory mice, whereas when calories are supplied mainly in the form of carbohydrate rather than fat, daughters predominate. As the diets fed to the mice in these experiments were nutritionally complete and because litter sizes did not differ between treatments, dietary inadequacy seems not to be the cause for sex-ratio distortion. A number of mechanisms, all of which are testable, are discussed to provide an explanation for the phenomenon. We conclude the review by discussing potential implications of these observations to human medicine and agriculture.
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