Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Sperm structure and motility in the eusocial naked mole-rat, Heterocephalus glaber: a case of degenerative orthogenesis in the absence of sperm competition?

Gerhard van der Horst1, Liana Maree1*, Sanet H Kotzé2 and M Justin O'Riain3

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Medical Bioscience, University of the Western Cape, Bellville, South Africa

2 Division of Anatomy and Histology, Department of Biomedical Sciences, Stellenbosch University, Parow, South Africa

3 Department of Zoology, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:351  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-351

Published: 5 December 2011



We have studied sperm structure and motility in a eusocial rodent where reproduction is typically restricted to a single male and behaviourally dominant queen. Males rarely compete for access to the queen during her estrus cycle, suggesting little or no role for sperm competition.


Our results revealed an atypical mammalian sperm structure with spermatozoa from breeding, subordinate and disperser males being degenerate and almost completely lacking a "mammalian phylogenetic stamp". Sperm structure is characterized by extreme polymorphism with most spermatozoa classified as abnormal. Sperm head shapes include round, oval, elongated, lobed, asymmetrical and amorphous. At the ultrastructural level, the sperm head contains condensed to granular chromatin with large open spaces between the chromatin. Nuclear chromatin seems disorganized since chromatin condensation is irregular and extremely inconsistent. The acrosome forms a cap (ca 35%) over the anterior part of the head. A well defined nuclear fossa and neck with five minor sets of banded protein structures are present. The midpiece is poorly organized and contains only 5 to 7 round to oval mitochondria. The flagellar pattern is 9+9+2. A distinct degenerative feature of the tail principal piece is the absence of the fibrous sheath. Only 7% motile spermatozoa were observed which had exceptionally slow swimming speeds.


In this species, sperm form has simplified and degenerated in many aspects and represents a specialised form of degenerative orthogenesis at the cellular level.