To store or mature spermatozoa? The primary role of the epididymis

Int J Androl. 1999 Apr;22(2):57-67. doi: 10.1046/j.1365-2605.1999.00151.x.


The function of the epididymis is considered in the context that it is necessary to transport spermatozoa for internal fertilization, but is also an adaptation involved in the competition between males to achieve paternity. Post-testicular sperm maturation and storage occur in lower vertebrates, such as the chondrichthyes, in which sperm storage is essential due to the slow rate of spermatogenesis. These roles persist in higher vertebrates, including mammals. However, they are less important in certain birds, in which the rate of sperm production by the testes is sufficient to supply enough spermatozoa to cope with the demands of a competitive mating system. There is no evidence for mammals, other than humans, that spermatozoa can achieve the capacity to fertilize an ovum without passing through some of the proximal epididymis. Storage of spermatozoa in the epididymis is probably not essential for a male to achieve conception in a protected mating system, but is very important in a competitive mating system. There is some variation between species in the magnitude of the epididymal storage region. This is related to the descent of the epididymides (and testes) into a scrotal sac in some species and/or the demands of the mating system in other species. The claims that humans are not dependent on post-testicular sperm maturation and storage need to be qualified, as they are based on studies of abnormal tracts and tests of fertility which are not rigorous. Nevertheless, the claims are of considerable clinical significance and may indicate that humans are less dependent on post-testicular sperm maturation and storage than other mammals. This may be an adaptation of the testes and epididymides to the scrotal conditions of modern man or a response to changing environmental factors.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Epididymis / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Spermatozoa / physiology*