, Volume 125, Issue 3, pp 553–571 | Cite as

Dynamics of vertebrate sex chromosome evolution: from equal size to giants and dwarfs

  • Manfred Schartl
  • Michael Schmid
  • Indrajit Nanda


The Y and W chromosomes of mammals and birds are known to be small because most of their genetic content degenerated and were lost due to absence of recombination with the X or Z, respectively. Thus, a picture has emerged of ever-shrinking Ys and Ws that may finally even fade into disappearance. We review here the large amount of literature on sex chromosomes in vertebrate species and find by taking a closer look, particularly at the sex chromosomes of fishes, amphibians and reptiles where several groups have evolutionary younger chromosomes than those of mammals and birds, that the perception of sex chromosomes being doomed to size reduction is incomplete. Here, sex-determining mechanisms show a high turnover and new sex chromosomes appear repeatedly. In many species, Ys and Ws are larger than their X and Z counterparts. This brings up intriguing perspectives regarding the evolutionary dynamics of sex chromosomes. It can be concluded that, due to accumulation of repetitive DNA and transposons, the Y and W chromosomes can increase in size during the initial phase of their differentiation.


Heterochromatin Sex chromosome Degeneration WZ/ZZ XX/XY Homomorphy Heteromorphy 



Information collected on sex chromosomes of many weird species through numerous cytogenetic colleagues from many countries is highly appreciated. The list of examples for sex chromosomes discussed in this review that deviate from the classical view is certainly not complete. We apologize to all our colleagues whose work have escaped our attention and have not been mentioned appropriately. We thank Monika Niklaus-Ruiz for the help in the preparation of the manuscript. The work of the authors on sex chromosomes has been supported by the DFG through grants SCHA 408/12-1 and SCHA 408/10-1.

Compliance with ethical standards

Ethics and animal welfare statement

The manuscript or parts of it have not been submitted elsewhere. No data or images have been manipulated to support our conclusions. All presented data are our own; work of other authors is cited with correct references. All authors have given their consent to submit the final version. All co-authors have contributed sufficiently to the manuscript and therefore share collective responsibility and accountability for the results.

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Manfred Schartl
    • 1
    • 2
  • Michael Schmid
    • 3
  • Indrajit Nanda
    • 3
  1. 1.Physiological ChemistryUniversity of WürzburgWürzburgGermany
  2. 2.Comprehensive Cancer Center MainfrankenUniversity ClinicWürzburgGermany
  3. 3.Institute for Human GeneticsUniversity of WürzburgWürzburgGermany

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