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Fertil Steril. 2004 Apr;81(4):954-64.

Environmental versus genetic sex determination: a possible factor in dinosaur extinction?

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  • 1University of Leeds, Leeds, United Kingdom.


This study examined the possibility that genetically based sex-determination mechanisms have evolved to ensure a balanced male/female ratio and that this temperature-independent checkpoint might have been unavailable to long-extinct reptiles, notably the dinosaurs. A review of the literature on molecular and phylogenetic relationships between modes of reproduction and sex determination in extant animals was conducted. Mammals, birds, all snakes and most lizards, amphibians, and some gonochoristic fish use specific sex-determining chromosomes or genes (genetic sex determination, GSD). Some reptiles, however, including all crocodilians studied to date, many turtle and tortoise species, and some lizards, use environmental or temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD). We show that various modes of GSD have evolved many times, independently in different orders. Animals using TSD would be at risk of rapid reproductive failure due to a skewed sex ratio favoring males in response to sustained environmental temperature change and favoring the selection of sex-determining genes. The disadvantage to the evolving male sex-determining chromosome, however, is its decay due to nonrecombination and the subsequent loss of spermatogenesis genes. Global temperature change can skew the sex ratio of TSD animals and might have played a significant role in the demise of long-extinct species, notably the dinosaurs, particularly if the temperature change resulted in a preponderance of males. Current global warming also represents a risk for extant TSD species.

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