Sex allocation theory has been remarkably successful at explaining the prevalence of even sex ratios in natural populations and at identifying specific conditions that can result in biased sex ratios. Much of this theory focuses on parental sex determination (SD) strategies. Here, we consider instead the evolutionary causes and consequences of mixed offspring SD strategies, in which the genotype of an individual determines not its sex, but the probability of developing one of multiple sexes. We find that alleles specifying mixed offspring SD strategies can generally outcompete alleles that specify pure strategies, but generate constraints that may prevent a population from reaching an even sex ratio. We use our model to analyze sex ratios in natural populations of Tetrahymena thermophila, a ciliate with seven sexes determined by mixed SD alleles. We show that probabilistic SD is sufficient to account for the occurrence of skewed sex ratios in natural populations of T. thermophila, provided that their effective population sizes are small. Our results highlight the importance of genetic drift in sex ratio evolution and suggest that mixed offspring SD strategies should be more common than currently thought.
© 2011 The Author(s). Evolution© 2011 The Society for the Study of Evolution.