An age-dependent ovulatory strategy explains the evolution of dizygotic twinning in humans

Wade N. Hazel, Robert Black, Richard C. Smock, Rebecca Sear, Joseph L. Tomkins

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Abstract

Dizygotic twinning, the simultaneous birth of siblings when multiple ova are released, is an evolutionary paradox. Twin-bearing mothers often have elevated fitness, but despite twinning being heritable, twin births occur only at low frequencies in human populations. We resolve this paradox by showing that twinning and non-twinning are not competing strategies; instead, dizygotic twinning is the outcome of an adaptive conditional ovulatory strategy of switching from single to double ovulation with increasing age. This conditional strategy, when coupled with the well-known decline in fertility as women age, maximizes reproductive success and explains the increase and subsequent decrease in the twinning rate with maternal age that is observed across human populations. We show that the most successful ovulatory strategy would be to always double ovulate as an insurance against early fetal loss, but to never bear twins. This finding supports the hypothesis that twinning is a by-product of selection for double ovulation rather than selection for twinning.

Original languageEnglish
JournalNature Ecology and Evolution
DOIs
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 11 May 2020

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