Testis asymmetry in birds: the influences of sexual and natural selection

Sara Calhim, Robert Montgomerie

Published online: 
15 October 2014

Gonad size and shape asymmetries are particularly common in birds. Although some obvious size and shape differences between the left and right testes in birds were first documented more than a century ago, little is known about what influences the variation across species in either the degree or the direction of these asymmetries. Here we show that a left bias in size is the most likely ancestral state in most orders and families, and that there is a weak but significant negative relation between the degree of size and shape asymmetries. In extant species, testis size and shape symmetries increase with the degree of sperm competition (relative testes mass), but those relations are significant only in those species with left bias in each of these traits. When space is particularly constrained on the left side of the body cavity due to a large gizzard (e.g. in granivores), the left testis is more elongated and the degree of size symmetry is larger. Despite significant patterns, relative testes mass and gizzard complexity together explain < 10% of the variation in testis asymmetry in species with left biases. Thus our analyses suggest that some other factor is largely responsible for the evolution of gonad asymmetry in birds: 1) that a left bias in testis size might be a correlated response to selection for a left bias in the development of a single (left) ovary in females of most bird species, and/or 2) that physiological efficiency due to the dramatic and rapid increase in testis size of most species during the breeding season might favour enlargement of one testis. Our conclusions highlight the need to rethink and improve our understanding of the physiological processes underlying the investment in gonads by male birds.

Doi
10.1111/jav.00503