Maternal Investment and Nutrient Use Affect Phenotype of American Alligator and Domestic Chicken Hatchlings

Comp Biochem Physiol A Mol Integr Physiol. 2010 Sep;157(1):19-27. doi: 10.1016/j.cbpa.2010.05.010. Epub 2010 Jun 1.


Maternal investment by oviparous amniotes, in the form of yolk and albumen, and the mechanisms by which embryos use available energy and nutrients have a profound effect on embryo and, consequently, hatchling phenotype. Nutrient provisioning and uptake vary within and among oviparous taxa, avian and non-avian reptiles, due to differences and similarities in environment, behavior, and phylogeny. Eggs of crocodilians, the closest extant relatives to modern birds, are ideal models for examining modes of embryonic development, especially with regard to nutrient uptake, in non-avian reptiles and comparing them with those of birds. In this study, we investigated egg composition, embryo growth, and nutrient use in the domestic chicken (Gallus gallus) and American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). We explored egg composition by separating and weighing components of fresh eggs. We measured embryo growth and nutrient usage by dissecting embryos and by obtaining samples of liquid from the amnion, digestive tract, and yolk sac throughout the last half of incubation. Variation in albumen mass contributed most to egg mass variation in chicken eggs, whereas alligator eggs were composed almost equally of yolk and albumen, although larger eggs contained proportionally more albumen and less yolk than smaller eggs. Both chicken and alligator albumen were mostly water (87% and 96%, respectively) although chicken albumen contained over three times more solid mass per gram than alligator albumen. In both species, yolk contained a high proportion of solids. Larger eggs produced larger hatchlings in both chickens and alligators, but albumen solids contributed to embryo mass only in chicken embryos. However, intact albumen proteins appeared in the stomach in embryos of both species. While the final disposition of albumen in alligators is unclear, variation in maternal investment of yolk at oviposition was responsible for nearly all of the variation in alligator hatchling phenotype, while both yolk and albumen contributed to chicken hatchling mass.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alligators and Crocodiles / physiology*
  • Animal Nutritional Physiological Phenomena / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Biomass
  • Chick Embryo
  • Chickens / growth & development
  • Chickens / physiology*
  • Egg Proteins / genetics
  • Egg Proteins / metabolism
  • Eggs / analysis
  • Female
  • Maternal Behavior / physiology*
  • Phenotype


  • Egg Proteins