Ejaculate traits and ovarian fluid as a potential mechanism for cryptic female choice in chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha)
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Marine and freshwater environments support numerous species of teleost fish with a wide and diverse range of reproductive strategies. Despite the considerable interest in fish reproduction, our knowledge regarding ejaculate traits and factors affecting them is limited. Using computer-assisted sperm analysis (CASA) I measured ejaculate traits (sperm swimming speed, motility, path trajectory, longevity and concentration) from sexually mature chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) activated in freshwater and ovarian fluid. I also looked at these ejaculate traits in relation to measures of male quality (body condition) and investment into reproduction (relative testes mass). Furthermore, I determined the chemical composition of seminal and ovarian fluid and looked at the effect these fluids have on sperm behaviour.
A considerable amount of intraspecific variation existed in all ejaculate traits measured, and investment into reproduction (relative testes mass) was dependent on male body condition, as males in better condition had relatively larger testes. However, these males did not have superior quality ejaculates or ejaculates with a higher density of spermatozoa; hence the potential reproductive advantage of having larger relative testes in this species remains unknown and requires further investigation. In addition, a positive relation between sperm longevity and sperm swimming speed was observed defying the expected trade-off between ejaculate traits according to theory. There was also a weak negative trend in our data between body condition and sperm swimming speed, linearity, and longevity.
All sperm traits measured were greatly enhanced when activated in a solution containing ovarian fluid (a viscous fluid which is excreted with the egg batch during spawning) from female chinook salmon. Interestingly, sperm swimming speed activated in fresh water only accounted for < 12% of the observed variation in mean sperm swimming speed in ovarian fluid. This result suggests the sperm traits measured in fresh water are not relevant to those same traits measured in ovarian fluid, so caution should be applied when comparing the potential for individual males to fertilize ova when sperm traits are activated in water, especially in studies of sperm competition in an externally fertilising species.
Sperm competition between males is known to strongly influence sperm and ejaculate traits, but less is known about female sperm choice after copulation via a process called cryptic female choice (CFC). In CFC, females may have the ability to favour the sperm of one male over another and bias fertilisation accordingly. To test whether ovarian fluid could act as a mechanism of CFC in an externally fertilising fish species, I measured sperm traits from each male activated in the ovarian fluids from different females. I found that mean sperm swimming speed, longevity, and path trajectory differed significantly among males, but most importantly, the pattern of within-male variation in these traits also varied significantly among males in response to different females’ ovarian fluids. This result suggests that ovarian fluid may be a potential mechanism of CFC whereby females differentially enhance the swimming speed of sperm from different males. In addition, I found that sperm longevity was negatively correlated with variation in [Ca²⁺] and [Mg²⁺] concentration in the ovarian fluid, while percent motility increased with increasing concentration of [Mg²⁺].
These observations provide a possible chemical basis for cryptic female choice whereby female ovarian fluid differentially influences the behaviour of sperm from different males and thus their fertilisation success. This finding is particularly exciting, as we may have uncovered a potential mechanism of CFC in an externally fertilising species, which is poorly understood. In addition, results from this study suggest new directions for genetic studies to provide direct evidence for CFC. For example, does sperm selection via ovarian fluid promote favoured genetic combinations that enhance male reproductive success?