Time-critical influences of gestational diet in a seahorse model of male pregnancy [RESEARCH ARTICLE]

Francisco Otero-Ferrer, Freddy Lättekivi, James Ord, Ene Reimann, Sulev Koks, Marisol Izquierdo, William Vincent Holt, and Alireza Fazeli

Sex role reversal is not uncommon in the animal kingdom but is taken to the extreme by the Syngnathidae, in which male pregnancy is one of the most astonishing idiosyncrasies. However, critical and time-dependent environmental effects on developing embryos, such as those extensively studied in mammalian pregnancy, have not been investigated in the male pregnancy context. Here, we tested the hypothesis that seahorse pregnancy is subject to ‘critical windows’ of environmental sensitivity by feeding male long-snouted seahorses (Hippocampus reidi) a diet deficient in polyunsaturated fatty acids during specific periods before and during pregnancy. Despite embryos being nourished principally by maternally supplied yolk, we found that offspring morphology, fatty acid composition and gene expression profiles were influenced by paternal diet in a manner that depended critically on the timing of manipulation. Specifically, reception of a diet deficient in polyunsaturated fatty acids in the days preceding pregnancy resulted in smaller newborn offspring, while the same diet administered towards the end of pregnancy resulted in substantial alterations to newborn gene expression and elongation of the snout at 10 days old. Although paternal diet did not affect 10 day survival, the observed morphological alterations in some cases could have important fitness consequences in the face of natural selective pressures such as predation and food availability. Our results demonstrate that, under male pregnancy, fine-scale temporal variation in parental diet quality and subsequent critical window effects should not be overlooked as determinants of developing offspring fitness.

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