Sexual dimorphism in trait variability and its eco-evolutionary and statistical implications

Elife. 2020 Nov 17;9:e63170. doi: 10.7554/eLife.63170.


Biomedical and clinical sciences are experiencing a renewed interest in the fact that males and females differ in many anatomic, physiological, and behavioural traits. Sex differences in trait variability, however, are yet to receive similar recognition. In medical science, mammalian females are assumed to have higher trait variability due to estrous cycles (the 'estrus-mediated variability hypothesis'); historically in biomedical research, females have been excluded for this reason. Contrastingly, evolutionary theory and associated data support the 'greater male variability hypothesis'. Here, we test these competing hypotheses in 218 traits measured in >26,900 mice, using meta-analysis methods. Neither hypothesis could universally explain patterns in trait variability. Sex bias in variability was trait-dependent. While greater male variability was found in morphological traits, females were much more variable in immunological traits. Sex-specific variability has eco-evolutionary ramifications, including sex-dependent responses to climate change, as well as statistical implications including power analysis considering sex difference in variance.

Keywords: ecology; evolutionary biology; gender difference; meta regression; mouse; power analysis; sex inequality; sexual selection.

Plain language summary

Males and females differ in appearance, physiology and behavior. But we do not fully understand the health and evolutionary consequences of these differences. One reason for this is that, until recently, females were often excluded from medical studies. This made it difficult to know if a treatment would perform as well in females as males. To correct this, organizations that fund research now require scientists to include both sexes in studies. This has led to some questions about how to account for sex differences in studies. One reason females have historically been excluded from medical studies is that some scientists assumed that they would have more variable responses to a particular treatment based on their estrous cycles. Other scientists, however, believe that males of a given species might be more variable because of the evolutionary pressures they face in competing for mates. Better understanding how males and females vary would help scientists better design studies to ensure they provide accurate answers. Now, Zajitschek et al. debunk both the idea that males are more variable and the idea that females are more variable. To do this, Zajitschek et al. analyzed differences in 218 traits, like body size or certain behaviors, among nearly 27,000 male and female mice. This showed that neither male mice nor female mice were universally more different from other mice of their sex across all features. Instead, sex differences in how much variation existed in male or female mice depended on the individual trait. For example, males varied more in physical features like size, while females showed more differences in their immune systems. The results suggest it is particularly important to consider sex-specific variability in both medical and other types of studies. To help other researchers better design experiments to factor in such variability, Zajitschek et al. created an interactive tool that will allow scientists to look at sex-based differences in individual features among male or female mice.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Databases, Factual
  • Ecosystem*
  • Female
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Sex Characteristics*