Sex differences in the response to environmental cues regulating seasonal reproduction in birds

Gregory F. Ball, Ellen D. Ketterson

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

121 Scopus citations


Although it is axiomatic that males and females differ in relation to many aspects of reproduction related to physiology, morphology and behaviour, relatively little is known about possible sex differences in the response to cues from the environment that control the timing of seasonal breeding. This review concerns the environmental regulation of seasonal reproduction in birds and how this process might differ between males and females. From an evolutionary perspective, the sexes can be expected to differ in the cues they use to time reproduction. Female reproductive fitness typically varies more as a function of fecundity selection, while male reproductive fitness varies more as a function sexual selection. Consequently, variation in the precision of the timing of egg laying is likely to have more serious fitness consequences for females than for males, while variation in the timing of recrudescence of the male testes and accompanying territory establishment and courtship are likely to have more serious fitness consequences for males. From the proximate perspective, sex differences in the control of reproduction could be regulated via the response to photoperiod or in the relative importance and action of supplementary factors (such as temperature, food supply, nesting sites and behavioural interactions) that adjust the timing of reproduction so that it is in step with local conditions. For example, there is clear evidence in several temperate zone avian species that females require both supplementary factors and long photoperiods in order for follicles to develop, while males can attain full gonadal size based on photoperiodic stimulation alone. The neuroendocrine basis of these sex differences is not well understood, though there are many candidate mechanisms in the brain as well as throughout the entire hypothalamo-pituitary-gonadal axis that might be important.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)231-246
Number of pages16
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1490
StatePublished - Jan 27 2008
Externally publishedYes


  • Circannual rhythms
  • Photoperiodism
  • Sex differences
  • Supplementary cues

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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