The evolution and physiology of male pregnancy in syngnathid fishes



Publication Details

Whittington, C. & Friesen, C. (2020). The evolution and physiology of male pregnancy in syngnathid fishes. Biological Reviews,


© 2020 Cambridge Philosophical Society The seahorses, pipefishes and seadragons (Syngnathidae) are among the few vertebrates in which pregnant males incubate developing embryos. Syngnathids are popular in studies of sexual selection, sex-role reversal, and reproductive trade-offs, and are now emerging as valuable comparative models for the study of the biology and evolution of reproductive complexity. These fish offer the opportunity to examine the physiology, behavioural implications, and evolutionary origins of embryo incubation, independent of the female reproductive tract and female hormonal milieu. Such studies allow us to examine flexibility in regulatory systems, by determining whether the pathways underpinning female pregnancy are also co-opted in incubating males, or whether novel pathways have evolved in response to the common challenges imposed by incubating developing embryos and releasing live young. The Syngnathidae are also ideal for studies of the evolution of reproductive complexity, because they exhibit multiple parallel origins of complex reproductive phenotypes. Here we assay the taxonomic distribution of syngnathid parity mode, examine the selective pressures that may have led to the emergence of male pregnancy, describe the biology of syngnathid reproduction, and highlight pressing areas for future research. Experimental tests of a range of hypotheses, including many generated with genomic tools, are required to inform overarching theories about the fitness implications of pregnancy and the evolution of male pregnancy. Such information will be widely applicable to our understanding of fundamental reproductive and evolutionary processes in animals.

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