Yolk androgens and embryo sex: Maternal effects or confounding factors?

  • Gilbert L
  • Bulmer E
  • Arnold K
 et al. 
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Maternal effects occur when offspring phenotype is affected by environmental factors experienced by the mother and, in egg-laying species, are often mediated via egg resources. There is currently great interest among behavioural ecologists in maternally allocated yolk androgens, especially their relationship with offspring sex and development. Such studies need embryonic tissue for sexing, however, requiring eggs to be incubated (usually for 3 days). Therefore, there are concerns about whether the androgen concentrations assayed reflect those allocated by the mother. In addition, studies showing sex biases in maternal allocation of androgens could be confounded if male and female embryos uptake or metabolise androgens at different rates. We ran a series of experiments using zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata) eggs to address these potential confounding factors. First we showed, using eggs naturally incubated for up to 5 days, that eggs containing embryos had lower yolk androgen concentrations than eggs that had failed to form embryos. We then tested various hypotheses for this difference using controlled incubation treatments. Our results suggested that (a) embryo development causes the yolk to become progressively more diluted with albumin; and (b) between 3 and 5 days of incubation embryos start uptaking or metabolising androgens. Crucially, we found no decline in yolk androgen concentration at 3 days incubation, and no evidence for sex-specific rates of uptake or metabolism of androgens. This strongly suggests that yolk androgen levels up to 3 days incubation do reflect those allocated by the mother, and that studies of sex biased maternal allocation of yolk androgens are not confounded by sex differences in embryo development. © 2006 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Albumin
  • Androgens
  • Egg
  • Embryo
  • Incubation
  • Sex
  • Taeniopygia guttata
  • Yolk
  • Zebra finch

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  • L. Gilbert

  • E. Bulmer

  • K. E. Arnold

  • J. A. Graves

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