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Why, from the natural selection point of view, do only two sexes exist for animals?

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What avantage would you see in more than 2 sexes? –  nico Jun 23 '12 at 10:12
Mushrooms have a lot of sexes. So where is the advantage for them? –  emanuele Jun 23 '12 at 10:21
Fungi have a completely different type of reproductive cycle when compared to vertebrates. For instance they often switch between haploid and diploid during their life cycle. To be honest I am not sure of what you consider "a lot of sexes" in mushrooms. Could you elaborate (my microbiology courses are very far away in time...) –  nico Jun 23 '12 at 10:24
The meaning of my comment is: If i can say that more then two sexes does not bring any advantage then i can ask: where is the advantage of having only two sex? –  emanuele Jun 23 '12 at 11:45
Having sexual reproduction has several advantage over asexual reproduction. Having 2 different genders (rather than 3 or 4) is the easiest way to have sexual reproduction. Which bring us to my original question: 2 genders (sexual reproduction) is better than 1 (asexual reproduction). What would be the advantage of 3 rather than 2? –  nico Jun 23 '12 at 15:01

2 Answers 2

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To get a non-circular answer to why humans and other mammals have only two sexes, it's helpful to take a look at our evolutionary history. While mammals possess several adaptations to a terrestrial life cycle, including internal fertilization and gestation, which require substantial anatomic specialization between males and females, these are all secondary features that evolved long after our aquatic ancestors had acquired two distinct sexes.

Indeed, if we look at animals like fish, which reproduce via external fertilization, it's not at all obvious why they might not have more than two sexes. After all, for many aquatic animals, mating involves little more than the female and the male releasing their respective gametes into the water, where they meet and fuse to a form new zygote, which can then divide and grow into a new adult. Seen that way, there seems to be no reason why there could not be more than two "mating types", as in many fungi, such that gametes of any two distinct types could fuse into zygote.

The answer lies in the fact that the male and female gametes aren't actually that similar: the female gametes, or eggs, are typically large cells that contain all the nutrients necessary for the new zygote to develop into a viable individual, whereas the male gametes, or sperm, are tiny and produced in huge numbers. This asymmetry is known as anisogamy, and modeling its origin has been an important topic in the theoretical study of evolution.

Without going into details on the evolution of anisogamy, once it exists, it clearly forces the mating types to also split into two groups: there's no advantage in two microgametes (sperm) fusing, since the resulting zygote would lack the nutrients it needs to be viable, whereas the fusion of two macrogametes (eggs) would simply be inefficient — eggs, being large, are comparatively rare and expensive, and wasting two of them to produce only one offspring would be suboptimal even if the resulting zygote was viable. Nor is there really room in such a scheme for gametes of intermediate size: they'd be too small to fuse into a viable zygote with sperm, but too large to be produced in sufficient amounts to be effective in fertilizing eggs.

Of course, there's nothing that would stop a single adult from producing both micro- and macrogametes, but such an adult would not really be a third sex — it would just be male and female at the same time, a mating strategy known as (simultaneous) hermaphroditism, which indeed occurs relatively often in nature.

So, if pretty much all animals are anisogamous, why do fungi remain isogamous (and often have multiple mating types), then? Well, one explanation is that the main drivers for the evolution of anisogamy — sperm competition and transportation risk — don't really apply to fungi, which mate when two sessile haploid mycelia grow and come into contact with each other. Since the gametes are not motile, there's no advantage for either/any sex to produce more of them (at the cost of smaller size) in order to increase the chance of successful mating. Thus, isogamous mating works fine for the lifestyle of fungi, and having multiple mating types is then a useful adaptation to make successful mating between neighboring mycelia more likely.

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@emanuele you seem to be asking why there are only 2 sexes for animals, in contrast to fungi which can have many sexes or maybe bacteria which have mobile sex - the ability to donate genetic information can be acquired or lost.

Some animals - worms and fish for instance are hemaphrodites - they can accept sperm or donate them to produce offspring. Fungi are even simpler - the mating is by haploid fusion on the cellular level, since they have single celled life cycles. The mating type allows mating with any cell that is not of the same mating type. Its just a matter of how much genome space you want to dedicate to mating and there can be 2 mating types of 10,000 mating types - the only rule is that you can't mate with your own mating type. Its a simple mechanism to restrict mating with yourself - probably to encourage genetic diversity.

Physiologically, for single celled animals and simple egg layers like fish and worms, you can see why sexual roles might not need to be specialized; its a matter of which gamete you will deposit. If the egg is no more than an especially fat cell, becoming male is not necessarily a big change. But when eggs are more complicated structures or live birth becomes an adaptation, the expense of being the gamete donor (male) or recipient (female) becomes a significant commitment and changing roles is not so easy to do in an evolutionary system.

Ultimately, Unlike worms or snakes, committed females are specialized such that turning into a male, with the requisite development of a womb, changes in bone structure, etc is such an elaborate phenomenon that we don't observe it.

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Sex reversal, however, is observed for example in fish (notably salmon) –  nico Jun 24 '12 at 16:43
"For animals and humans" -- do you mean mammals? (Snakes and worms are also animals.) –  Michael Kuhn Jun 25 '12 at 6:52
I think the OP is likely asking why mammals only have 2 sexes. This is quite different to asking why we don't spontaneously change sex (as you quite rightly point out, the physiological changes required are too much). But what you don't touch upon is why there are no examples of 3 sexes, for instance, in mammals (that I know of) - I think this would then be a very complete answer. –  Luke Jun 25 '12 at 15:28

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