The Trivers-Willard hypothesis

From EurekAlert:

One of the most debated hypotheses in evolutionary biology received new support today, thanks to a study by a scientist at the University of Nevada, Reno. Elissa Cameron, a mammal ecologist in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science, has helped to disprove critics of a scientific theory developed in 1973.

At that time, ecologist Bob Trivers and mathematician Dan Willard said that large healthy mammals produce more male offspring when living in good conditions, such as areas where there is an ample food supply. Conversely, female mammals living in less desirable conditions would tend to have female offspring. …

She conducted an analysis of 1,000 studies that examined the Trivers-Willard hypothesis and sex ratios in mammals. Her study found that female mammals that were in better body condition during the early stages of conception were more likely have male offspring. Body fat and diet can affect levels of glucose circulating in a mammal’s body, and Cameron suggests that the levels of glucose around the time of conception could be influencing the sex of the animal’s offspring.

“A high-fat diet can result in higher levels of glucose, thereby supporting the hypothesis that glucose may be contributing to the sex of the mammal’s offspring,” Cameron said.

The paper is Elissa Z. Cameron, “Facultative adjustment of mammalian sex ratios in support of the Trivers-Willard hypothesis: evidence for a mechanism” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Ser. B. 271, 1723 - 1728 ( DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2004.2773).


Evolutionary theory predicts that mothers of different condition should adjust the birth sex ratio of their offspring in relation to future reproductive benefits. Published studies addressing variation in mammalian sex ratios have produced surprisingly contradictory results. Explaining the source of such variation has been a challenge for sex-ratio theory, not least because no mechanism for sex-ratio adjustment is known. I conducted a meta-analysis of previous mammalian sex-ratio studies to determine if there are any overall patterns in sex-ratio variation. The contradictory nature of previous results was confirmed. However, studies that investigated indices of condition around conception show almost unanimous support for the prediction that mothers in good condition bias their litters towards sons. Recent research on the role of glucose in reproductive functioning have shown that excess glucose favours the development of male blastocysts, providing a potential mechanism for sex-ratio variation in relation to maternal condition around conception. Furthermore, many of the conflicting results from studies on sex-ratio adjustment would be explained if glucose levels in utero during early cell division contributed to the determination of offspring sex ratios.