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Climate change damaging male fertility, Norwich scientists find

PUBLISHED: 07:23 14 November 2018 | UPDATED: 07:23 14 November 2018

Research into red flour beetles by University Of East Anglia scientists has found a link between climate change and fertility. Pic: University of East Anglia.

Research into red flour beetles by University Of East Anglia scientists has found a link between climate change and fertility. Pic: University of East Anglia.

University of East Anglia

Climate change could pose a threat to male fertility – according to new research from the University of East Anglia.

Findings published in the journal Nature Communications reveal that heatwaves damage sperm in insects – with negative impacts for fertility across generations.

The research team sa male infertility during heatwaves could help to explain why climate change is having such an impact on species populations, including climate-related extinctions in recent years.

Research group leader Prof Matt Gage, from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences, said: “We know that biodiversity is suffering under climate change, but the specific causes and sensitivities are hard to pin down.

“We’ve shown in this work that sperm function is an especially sensitive trait when the environment heats up, and in a model system representing a huge amount of global biodiversity.

“Since sperm function is essential for reproduction and population viability, these findings could provide one explanation for why biodiversity is suffering under climate change.

“A warmer atmosphere will be more volatile and hazardous, with extreme events like heatwaves becoming increasingly frequent, intense and widespread.

“Heatwaves are particularly damaging extreme weather events. Local extinctions are known to occur when temperature changes become too intense. We wanted to know why this happens. And one answer could be related to sperm.”

The research team investigated the red flour beetle (Tribolium castaneum) to explore the effects of simulated heatwaves on male reproduction.

The beetles were exposed to either standard control conditions or five-day heatwave temperatures, which were 5°C to 7°C above their thermal optimum.

Afterwards, a variety of experiments assessed the potential damage to reproductive success, sperm function and offspring quality.

And the team found that heatwaves halved the amount of offspring males could produce, and a second heatwave almost sterilised males.

Females, by contrast, were unaffected by heatwave conditions. However, female reproduction was affected indirectly because experiments showed that heatwaves damaged inseminated sperm within female reproductive tracts.

The researchers warn that this could add extra pressure to populations already suffering through climate change over time.

“Beetles are thought to constitute a quarter of biodiversity, so these results are very important for understanding how species react to climate change. Research has also shown that heat shock can damage male reproduction in warm blooded animals too, and past work has shown that this leads to infertility in mammals,” added Sales.

The researchers hope that the effects can be incorporated into models predicting species vulnerability, and ultimately help inform societal understanding and conservation actions.

The work was funded by Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the EnvEast DTP, UEA, and the Leverhulme Trust.

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