Annual cycles of steroid hormone production, gonad development, and reproductive behavior in the Atlantic stingray

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The mating season of the Atlantic stingray (Dasyatis sabina), which begins in August and continues through April, is the longest documented for any elasmobranch fish. Despite this protracted mating period, female stingrays ovulate synchronously at the end of the mating season and there is no evidence for sperm storage by females. Thus, the proximate causal factors and ultimate function of this extended preovulatory mating are unknown. Annual cycles of the gonadal steroids testosterone (T), dihydrotestosterone (DHT), 17β-estradiol (E2), and progesterone (P4) were measured for 26 months in a wild estuarine population of Atlantic stingrays to test for associations with their reproductive biology, gametogenesis, and sexual behavior. Serum androgen levels in males showed four phases within an annual cycle: (1) androgen suppression between reproductive seasons (April-July), (2) primary androgen increase during the onset of spermatocyte development (August-October), (3) androgen decrease following maximum testis growth and spermatocyte development (November-December), and (4) secondary androgen increase during the peak of sperm maturation (January-March). Increases in male E2 and P4 were correlated with spermatocyte./spermatocyst formation, maximum testis weight, and the primary (but not secondary) androgen surge. We propose that the production of male androgens across the full seven-month preovulatory mating period promotes their aggressive re- productive behavior and drives the protracted mating season of this species. In females, serum T and DHT showed relatively brief increases near ovulation, whereas E2 and P4 showed brief increases near both ovulation and parturition. The increase in female androgens near ovulation may increase female aggression when they are impregnable by courting males and enhance their choice of mates. This estuary sample population shows higher absolute steroid levels and distinct differences in temporal cycles compared to another Florida fresh water lake population, but the cause and significance of these differences are unknown. Experiments are needed to confirm that the aggressive and protracted mating behavior is the result of prolonged male androgen production and to determine whether the sustained preovulatory mating serves some function related to female reproduction. (C) 2000 Academic Press.

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General and Comparative Endocrinology

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