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What Is Sperm Competition?

Nicky Sutton
Nicky Sutton

Sperm competition occurs when a female mates with more than one male before fertilization occurs. The female has the sperm of more than one male inside her body, so an element of competition exists between the sperm. Each set of sperm travels toward a female’s egg with the objective of fertilizing it, and each male typically wants his sperm to reach the egg first. The behavior of the sperm themselves does not change during sperm competition because they cannot know that they are in competition. The competition between sperm from the same male is not considered to be sperm competition in this sense.

The sperm of both males — or all of them, if there are more than two males involved — are in competition to reach the female’s egg first. Therefore, only the fittest and most physically able of the sperm will succeed. To help sperm do better in the competition to fertilize females, males have evolved mechanisms to increase their chances of success. Generally, the greater the competition between males, or the more promiscuous the female animal, the more that evolution has needed to play a role in equipping the male and his sperm for the task of effective fertilization.

A sperm cell.
A sperm cell.

Sperm quality usually is the deciding factor for a male’s sperm to win the sperm competition and fertilize the female’s egg. There are several factors that make a male's sperm superior to other males sperm. Among these qualities are longevity, speed and energy.

Evolutional changes have occurred in which sperm are produced to the optimal size to be able to swim as fast as possible, given the amount of energy required to reach the female’s egg. Males have also evolved to produce sperm in greater numbers where there is greater sperm competition. Throughout the animal kingdom, large testes are observed where this is so.

If an ovum is exposed to sperm from more than on male, sperm competition has occurred.
If an ovum is exposed to sperm from more than on male, sperm competition has occurred.

As a result of sperm competition, males will guard a female from other males before and after mating. Some fish, such as guppies, attempt to mate with a female directly after she has given birth, to ensure that he mates with her first. Males from species of birds, reptiles and mammals will all fight for the right to mate with a female.

Colorful shows are put on for females where sperm competition is great. One example is the colorful peacock who displays his fan of feathers to impress a female more than the rival male. Some animals, such as spiders, insert a copulatory plug into the female after mating, to prevent another male from attempting to mate.

Some females will mate with multiple males in a short time. The black-winged damselfly is one such animal. The male of the species has a brush-like penis that he uses to clean the female of the sperm already deposited inside her.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is sperm competition?

Sperm competition occurs when the sperm from two or more males compete to fertilize the eggs of a female. This biological phenomenon is common in species with polyandrous mating systems, where a female mates with multiple males in a short period. It drives various adaptations in male reproductive strategies to increase their chances of reproductive success.

How does sperm competition affect male reproductive strategies?

Male reproductive strategies evolve under sperm competition to maximize fertilization success. These strategies can include producing more sperm, developing sperm with higher motility, or engaging in behaviors that displace or inhibit rival sperm. According to research, some species have evolved complex mating rituals or copulatory plugs to block subsequent males from fertilizing the female's eggs.

Can sperm competition influence the evolution of penis morphology?

Yes, sperm competition can significantly influence the evolution of penis morphology. In species with high sperm competition, males may develop longer or more elaborate penises to deposit sperm closer to the female's eggs, outcompeting rivals. Studies have shown a correlation between the level of sperm competition and the size and shape of male genitalia in various species.

What are some examples of species that exhibit sperm competition?

Many species exhibit sperm competition, including insects like damselflies and butterflies, birds such as swallows and sparrows, and mammals like chimpanzees and mice. In these species, males have developed various adaptations, from sperm with longer tails for increased swimming speed to behaviors that remove or inactivate the sperm of previous mates.

Does sperm competition have any impact on female reproductive anatomy and behavior?

Sperm competition can also influence female reproductive anatomy and behavior. Females may evolve complex reproductive tracts that selectively favor sperm from certain males or store sperm for extended periods. Behavioral adaptations can include cryptic female choice, where females exert some control over which male's sperm fertilizes their eggs, often based on the quality of the male or his sperm.

How does sperm competition relate to sexual selection?

Sperm competition is a form of sexual selection, where evolutionary pressures result from the competition among males for fertilization opportunities. It can lead to the development of secondary sexual characteristics, such as increased body size or elaborate displays, which may give males an advantage either in direct competition with other males or in being chosen by females.

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    • A sperm cell.
      By: Alexandr Mitiuc
      A sperm cell.
    • If an ovum is exposed to sperm from more than on male, sperm competition has occurred.
      By: Joshua Resnick
      If an ovum is exposed to sperm from more than on male, sperm competition has occurred.