I'm writing a lab on sexual dimorphism (sex differences in phenotypic traits) and I want to include a sentence in the abstract that states how prevalent sexual dimorphism is. However, I can't find any figures that pertain to organisms generally (or even for a clade).

How prevalent is sexual dimorphism in nature? How frequent is sexual dimorphism beyond primary sexual traits (gonads, gametes etc.)?

  • $\begingroup$ Ubiquitous to all anisogamous species - gametes (eggs and sperm) at least are sexually dimorphic $\endgroup$ – rg255 Feb 13 '16 at 20:36
  • $\begingroup$ You need to clarify exactly what kind of sexual dimorphisms you are thinking about (or define 'sexual dimorphism'). One common reason that sexual dimorphisms occur is sexual selection - which by definition is affecting reproduction - so to say that sexual dimorphisms are sex differences that don't affect reproduction doesn't make much sense to me. $\endgroup$ – fileunderwater Feb 13 '16 at 23:44
  • $\begingroup$ @fileunderwater all dimorphisms outside of the sex organs. $\endgroup$ – Hal Feb 14 '16 at 3:16
  • $\begingroup$ You might consider the possibility that all species have sexual dimorphisms, even if they aren't readily apparent to our limited and prejudiced by anthropomorphism perceptions, since males and females are able to tell each other apart. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Feb 14 '16 at 5:05
  • $\begingroup$ I hope something comes up, but without a clear definition this is a matter of opinion. $\endgroup$ – James Feb 16 '16 at 4:51

I would say that anisogamy, the different gametes such as sperm and eggs, is itself, a form of sexual dimorphism. However, you've since stipulated that you want to know the prevalence of sexual dimorphism beyond sex organs/gametes.

Sexual dimorphism occurs in a vast plethora of traits, at a variety of levels, and in almost all known dioecious species. It occurs even at the level of gene expression in, for example, mice, birds, mosquitoes, fruit flies, nematode worms, humans, and much more. Sexual dimorphism is prevalent and obvious in morphology such as peafowl, red deer, mallards, humans, guppies, fruit flies, horned flour beetles, and much more. It also occurs in physiology, behaviour, and life history traits (e.g. lifespan, ageing).

Simply put, sexual dimorphism is extremely common. It is hard to put a number on it, any studies of sexual dimorphism are likely to be focussed on sexually dimorphic traits (so a meta analysis will likely suffer from publication bias), and not all traits can be easily measured. However, gene expression is a good place to look because many traits (expression level of each gene is a trait) can be sampled simultaneously. This study found that 18% of genes were significantly sex-biased in any one tissue, while this suggests that at various developmental stages it was between approximately (based on table 1) 13% and 61%. Note again, there's not much literature which actually puts numbers on the general frequency and extent of sexual dimorphism. That is generally because, in the relevant research community, the gonads and gametes are included as sexual dimorphisms.*

Also, despite the frequency of sexual dimorphism, it is thought that the evolution of sexual dimorphism is severely constrained by the sexes working from the same genome (links: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) and sexually antagonistic selection could readily favour further evolution of sexual dimorphism.

In terms of your report, I don't think you would need firm numbers or a citation; it's a well accepted fact that sexual dimorphism is common.* You would be more than fine to say something along the lines of:

"Sexual dimorphism is extremely prevalent in nature, found in a range of taxa, and found in a variety of traits."

* These points are based on my experience, I did my phd thesis on the evolution of sexual dimorphism so I've read quite a substantial component of the relevant literature.


I second the comment. Any species that reproduces sexually presents dimorphism. Even S.caerevisiae produces haploid spores with MatA and MatAlpha. Although otherwise indistinguishable, they are dimorphic from a molecular point of view (the expression of the receptor).

Here is a set of figures:


"The MATα allele of MAT encodes the α1 and α2 genes, which in haploids direct the transcription of the α-specific transcriptional program (such as expressing STE3, repressing STE2) which causes the cell to be an α cell."

  • $\begingroup$ This needs work to be considered as an answer. It's more suited to a comment as it does not attempt to answer the question. $\endgroup$ – rg255 Feb 16 '16 at 9:48
  • $\begingroup$ It does as "Any species that reproduces sexually presents dimorphism" and I also mentioned that it traces back to S.caerevisiae, which is one of the simplest model organisms. $\endgroup$ – nbafrank Apr 8 '16 at 2:46
  • $\begingroup$ The user specified that they want sex differences beyond primary sex traits (gametes, gonads etc.) $\endgroup$ – rg255 Apr 8 '16 at 6:45

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