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Int J Dev Biol. 1990 Mar;34(1):81-92.

Temperature sex-reversal in amphibians and reptiles.

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Laboratoire de Biologie Expérimentale, Université de Nancy, Paris, France.


The sexual differentiation of gonads has been shown to be temperature-sensitive in many species of amphibians and reptiles. In two close species of salamanders, Pleurodeles poireti and P. waltl, both displaying a ZZ/ZW mechanism of genotypic sex determination (GSD), the rearing of larvae at high temperatures (30 degrees-32 degrees C) produces opposite effects: ZZ genotypic males of Pleurodeles poireti become phenotypic females whereas ZW genotypic females of P. waltl become phenotypic males. Sex-reversal of these individuals has been irrefutably demonstrated through genetic, cytogenetic, enzymatic and immunological studies. In many turtles, both sexes differentiate only within a critical range of temperature: above this range, all the individuals become phenotypic females, whereas below it, 100% become phenotypic males. The inverse occurs in some crocodiles and lizards. In many species of these three orders of reptiles, females are obtained at low and high temperatures, and males at intermediate ones. Preliminary studies in turtles (Emys orbicularis) indicate that within the critical range of temperature, sexual phenotype conforms with GSD, but that above and below this range, GSD is overriden. Temperature shifts during larval development in salamanders and during embryonic development in reptiles allowed the determination of thermosensitive stages for gonadal differentiation. Estrogens synthesized in the gonads at these stages appear to be involved in their sexual differentiation, higher levels being produced at feminizing temperatures than at masculinizing ones. The phenomenon of temperature sensitivity of gonadal differentiation occurs in species showing a very early stage in the evolution of sex chromosomes. Its adaptive value, chiefly in reptiles, remains an open question.

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