Mammalian sex is determined genetically by the combination of X and Y chromosomes. Individuals homozygous for X (XX) are female and heterozygous individuals (XY) are male. In mammals, the presence of a Y chromosome causes the development of male characteristics and its absence results in female characteristics. The XY system is also found in some insects and plants.
Bird sex determination is dependent on the combination of Z and W chromosomes. Homozygous for Z (ZZ) results in a male and heterozygous (ZW) results in a female. Notice that this system is the opposite of the mammalian system because in birds the female is the sex with the different sex chromosomes. The W appears to be essential in determining the sex of the individual, similar to the Y chromosome in mammals. Some fish, crustaceans, insects (such as butterflies and moths), and reptiles use the ZW system.
More complicated chromosomal sex determining systems also exist. For example, some swordtail fish have three sex chromosomes in a population.
The sex of some other species is not determined by chromosomes, but by some aspect of the environment. Sex determination in alligators, some turtles, and tuataras, for example, is dependent on the temperature during the middle third of egg development. This is referred to as environmental sex determination, or more specifically, as temperature-dependent sex determination. In many turtles, cooler temperatures during egg incubation produce males and warm temperatures produce females, while in many other species of turtles, the reverse is true. In some crocodiles and some turtles, moderate temperatures produce males and both warm and cool temperatures produce females.
Individuals of some species change their sex during their lives, switching from one to the other. If the individual is female first, it is termed protogyny or “first female,” if it is male first, it is termed protandry or “first male.” Oysters are born male, grow in size, and become female and lay eggs. The wrasses, a family of reef fishes, are all sequential hermaphrodites. Some of these species live in closely coordinated schools with a dominant male and a large number of smaller females. If the male dies, a female increases in size, changes sex, and becomes the new dominant male.
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