Adaptive paternal effects? Experimental evidence that the paternal environment affects offspring performance

Authors: Angela J Crean, John M Dwyer and Dustin J Marshall

Published in: Ecology, volume 94, issue 11 (November 2013)


The ability of females to adaptively influence offspring phenotype via maternal effects is widely acknowledged, but corresponding nongenetic paternal effects remain unexplored. Males can adjust sperm phenotype in response to local conditions, but the transgenerational consequences of this plasticity are unknown.

We manipulated paternal density of a broadcast spawner (Styela plicata, a solitary ascidean) using methods shown previously to alter sperm phenotype in the field, then conducted in vitro fertilizations that excluded maternal effects and estimated offspring performance under natural conditions. Offspring sired by males from low-density experimental populations developed faster and had a higher hatching success than offspring sired by males living in high densities.

In the field, offspring survived relatively better when their environment matched their father’s, raising the possibility that fathers can adaptively influence the phenotype of their offspring according to local conditions.

As the only difference between offspring is whether they were artificially fertilized by sperm from males kept in high- vs. low-density cages, we can unequivocally attribute any differences in offspring performance to an environmentally induced paternal effect.

Males of many species manipulate the phenotype of their sperm in response to sperm competition: our results show this plasticity can influence offspring fitness, potentially in adaptive ways, raising the possibility that adaptive nongenetic paternal effects may be more common than previously thought.

Full paper

Crean AJ, Dwyer JM, Marshall DJ (2013) Adaptive paternal effects? Experimental evidence that the paternal environment affects offspring performance. Ecology, 94(11): 2575–2582 PDFPDF 493 KB doi:10.1890/13-0184.1