Female fish have a fail-safe for surprise sperm attacks

oscillated wrasse

Female ocellated wrasse (left) lay their eggs in an algae nest, and colorful nesting males (right) quickly fertilize them. A female’s ovarian fluid can favor sperm from her chosen mate when there’s sperm competition, researchers find. 

Susan Marsh-Rollo

Some guys really know how to kill a moment. Among Mediterranean fish called ocellated wrasse (Symphodus ocellatus), single males sneak up on mating pairs in their nest and release a flood of sperm in an effort to fertilize some of the female’s eggs. But female fish may safeguard against such skullduggery through their ovarian fluid, gooey film that covers fish eggs.

Suzanne Alonzo, a biologist at Yale University, and her colleagues exposed sperm from both types of males to ovarian fluid from female ocellated wrasse in the lab. Nesting males release speedier sperm in lower numbers (about a million per spawn), while sneaking males release a lot of slower sperm (about four million per spawn). Experiments showed that ovarian fluid enhanced sperm velocity and motility and favored speed over volume. Thus, the fluid gives a female’s chosen mate an edge in the race to the egg, the researchers report August 16 in Nature Communications.

While methods to thwart unwanted sperm are common in species that fertilize within the body, evidence from Chinook salmon previously hinted that external fertilizers don’t have that luxury. However, these new results suggest otherwise: Some female fish retain a level of control over who fathers their offspring even after laying their eggs. 

Male ocellated wrasse come in three varieties: sneaky males (shown) that surprise mating pairs with sperm but don’t help raise offspring; nesting males that build algae nests and court females; and satellite males, which protect nests from sneakers but staying out of parenting. Susan Marsh-Rollo
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson is the associate digital editor. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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