Reproductive System

Background Information:

Mom Mourning Cloak laying eggs
Female Mourning Cloak Laying Eggs on Willow
Animals’ reproductive systems can be divided into the internal reproductive organs and the external genitalia. The gonads are the actual organs that produce the gametes. In the male, testes (singular = testis) produce sperm, and in the female, ovaries make eggs.

In most animals, individuals are either definite males or definite females. However, in some species, individual organisms are both male and female. Hermaphroditism is when one organism has both sexes. Earthworms and garden snails always have both male and female organs, and when, for example, two earthworms mate, they fertilize each other. A special variation on the theme is sequential hermaphroditism, in which an organism changes sex during its life. If an organism is female first and later changes to male, that organism is protogynous, and if the organism is male first and changes to female, it is said to be protandrous. In different species, sequential hermaphroditism can be influenced by the organism’s age or size or by various environmental/climatic factors.

While most higher animals reproduce sexually, there are some species in which the females can, under certain conditions, produce offspring without mating. Parthenogenesis is the ability of an unfertilized egg to develop and hatch. This seems to be especially prevalent among insects. Some of the giant walkingsticks at the Zoo are females who, without mating, lay eggs that hatch into more females generation after generation. Other insects, like some aphids, have complicated life cycles that involve sexually-reproducing generations alternating with parthenogenically produced generations. In honeybees, fertilized eggs turn into females (workers and queens), while unfertilized eggs, which are only produced in the spring, turn into males.

beetles mating
Eastern Hercules Beetles Mating
In sexual reproduction, there must be some way of getting the sperm to the egg. Since sperm and eggs are designed to be in a watery environment, aquatic animals can make use of the water in which they live, but terrestrial animals must, in some way, provide the wet environment needed for the sperm to swim to the egg. There are, thus, two major mechanisms of fertilization. In external fertilization, used by many aquatic invertebrates, eggs and sperm are simultaneously shed into the water, and the sperm swim through the water to fertilze the egg. In internal fertilization, the eggs are fertilized within the reproductive tract of the female, and then are covered with eggshells and/or remain within the body of the female during their development.

In species with external fertilization, at an appropriate developmental stage, the eggs hatch, and the new young simply swim away. However, females of species with internal fertilization must, at some point, expel the growing young. There are three general ways of doing this:

Human Male Reproductive System:

Male Reproductive System
Male Reproductive System
(clipart edited from Corel Presentations 8)
The male reproductive system is illustrated to the right. Sperm are produced in the testes located in the scrotum. Normal body temperature is too hot thus is lethal to sperm so the testes are outside of the abdominal cavity where the temperature is about 2° C (3.6° F) lower. Note also that a woman’s body temperature is lowest around the time of ovulation to help insure sperm live longer to reach the egg. If a man takes too many long, very hot baths, this can reduce his sperm count. Undescended testes (testes are supposed to descend before birth) will cause sterility because their environment is too warm for sperm viability unless the problem can be surgically corrected. (Undescended testes are also very prone to developing cancer, thus if they cannot be surgically moved, they probably will need to be removed.)

From there, sperm are transferred to the epididymis, coiled tubules also found within the scrotum, that store sperm and are the site of their final maturation.

In ejaculation, sperm are forced up into the vas deferens (plural = vasa deferentia). From the epididymis, the vas deferens goes up, around the front of, over the top of, and behind the bladder. A vasectomy is a fairly simple, outpatient operation that involves making a small slit in each scrotum, cutting the vasa deferentia near where they begin, and tying off the cut ends to prevent sperm from leaving the scrotum. Because this is a relatively non-invasive procedure (as compared to doing the same to a woman’s oviducts), this is a popular method of permanent birth control once a couple has had all the children they desire. Couples should carefully weigh their options, because this (and the corresponding female procedure) is not designed to be a reversible operation.

The ends of the vasa deferentia, behind and slightly under the bladder, are called the ejaculatory ducts. The seminal vesicles are also located behind the bladder. Their secretions are about 60% of the total volume of the semen (= sperm and associated fluid) and contain mucus, amino acids, fructose as the main energy source for the sperm, and prostaglandins to stimulate female uterine contractions to move the semen up into the uterus. The seminal vesicles empty into the ejaculatory ducts. The ejaculatory ducts then empty into the urethra (which, in males, also empties the urinary bladder).

The initial segment of the urethra is surrounded by the prostate gland (note spelling!). The prostate is the largest of the accessory glands and puts its secretions directly into the urethra. These secretions are alkaline to buffer any residual urine, which tends to be acidic, and the acidity of the woman’s vagina. The prostate needs a lot of zinc to function properly, and insufficient dietary zinc (as well as other causes) can lead to enlargement which potentially can constrict the urethra to the point of interferring with urination. Mild cases of prostate hypertrophy can often be treated by adding supplemental zinc to the man’s diet, but severe cases require surgical removal of portions of the prostate. This surgery, if not done very carefully can lead to problems with urinary incontinence or sexual performance.

The bulbourethral glands or Cowper’s glands are the third of the accessory structures. These are a small pair of glands along the urethra below the prostate. Their fluid is secreted just before emission of the semen, thus it is thought that this fluid may serve as a lubricant for inserting the penis into the vagina, but because the volume of these secretions is very small, people are not totally sure of this function.

The urethra goes through the penis. In humans, the penis contains three cylinders of spongy, erectile tissue. During arousal, these become filled with blood from the arteries that supply them and the pressure seals off the veins that drain these areas causing an erection, which is necessary for insertion of the penis into the woman’s vagina. In a number of other animals, the penis also has a bone, the baculum, which helps to stiffen it. The head of the penis, the glans penis, is very sensitive to stimulation. In humans, as in other mammals, the glans is covered by the foreskin or prepuce, which may have been removed by circumcision. Medically, circumcision is not a necessity, but rather a cultural “tradition”. Males who have not been circumcised need to keep the area between the glans and the prepuce clean so bacteria and/or yeasts don’t start to grow on accumulated secretions, etc. there. There is some evidence that uncircumcised males who do not keep the glans/prepuce area clean are slightly more prone to penile cancer.

Human Female Reproductive System:

Female Reproductive System
Female Reproductive System
(clipart edited from Corel Presentations 8)
The female reproductive system is illustrated to the right. “Eggs” are produced in the ovaries, but remember from our discussion of meiosis, that these are not true eggs, yet, and will never complete meiosis and become such unless/until first fertilized by a sperm. Within the ovary, a follicle consists of one precursor egg cell surrounded by special cells to nourish and protect it. A human female typically has about 400,000 follicles/potential eggs, all formed before birth. Only several hundred of these “eggs” will actually ever be released during her reproductive years. (As just an example, if a woman would ovulate from age 15 to age 55, which is a long time, that’s 40 years. If we’d assume 13 28-day cycles per year, that would be 40 × 13 = 520 potential times an “egg” could be released.) Normally, in humans, after the onset of puberty, due to the stimulation of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) one “egg” per cycle matures and is released from its ovary. Ovulation is the release of a mature “egg” due to the stimulation of leutenizing hormone (LH), which then stimulates the remaining follicle cells to turn into a corpus luteum which then secretes progesterone to prepare the uterus for possible implantation. If an egg is not fertilized and does not implant, the corpus luteum disintegrates and when it stops producing progesterone, the lining of the uterus breaks down and is shed.

Each “egg” is released into the abdominal cavity near the opening of one of the oviducts or Fallopian tubes. Cilia in the oviduct set up currents that draw the egg in. If sperm are present in the oviduct (if the couple has recently had intercourse), the egg will be fertilized near the far end of the Fallopian tube, will quickly finish meiosis, and the embryo will start to divide and grow as it travels to the uterus. The trip down the Fallopian tube takes about a week as the cilia in the tube propel the unfertilized “egg” or the embryo down to the uterus. At this point, if she had intercourse near the time of ovulation, the woman has no idea whether an unfertilized “egg” or a new baby is travelling down that tube. During this time, progesterone secreted by the corpus luteum has been stimulating the endometrium, the lining of the uterus, to thicken in preparation for possible implantation, and when a growing embryo finally reaches the uterus, it will implant in this nutritious environment and begin to secrete its own hormones to maintain the endometrium. If the “egg” was not fertilized, it dies and disintegrates, and as the corpus luteum also disintegrates, its progesterone production falls, and the unneeded, built-up endometrium is shed.

The uterus has thick, muscular walls and is very small. In a nulliparous woman, the uterus is only about 7 cm long by 4 to 5 cm wide, but it can expand to hold a 4 kg baby. The lining of the uterus is called the endometrium, and has a rich capillary supply to bring food to any embryo that might implant there.

The bottom end of the uterus is called the cervix. The cervix secretes mucus, the consistency of which varies with the stages in her menstrual cycle. At ovulation, this cervical mucus is clear, runny, and conducive to sperm. Post-ovulation, the mucus gets thick and pasty to block sperm. Enough of this mucus is produced that it is possible for a woman to touch a finger to the opening of her vagina and obtain some of it. If she does this on a daily basis, she can use the information thus gained, along with daily temperature records, to tell where in her cycle she is. If a woman becomes pregnant, the cervical mucus forms a plug to seal off the uterus and protect the developing baby, and any medical procedure which involves removal of that plug carries the risk of introducing pathogens into the nearly-sterile uterine environment.

The vagina is a relatively-thin-walled chamber. It servs as a repository for sperm (it is where the penis is inserted), and also serves as the birth canal. Note that, unlike the male, the female has separate opening for the urinary tract and reproductive system. These openings are covered externally by two sets of skin folds. The thinner, inner folds are the labia minora and the thicker, outer ones are the labia majora. The labia minora contain erectile tissue like that in the penis, thus change shape when the woman is sexually aroused. The opening around the genital area is called the vestibule. There is a membrane called the hymen that partially covers the opening of the vagina. This is torn by the woman’s first sexual intercourse (or sometimes other causes like injury or some kinds of vigorous physical activity). In women, the openings of the vagina and urethra are susceptible to bacterial infections if fecal bacteria are wiped towards them. Thus, while parents who are toilet-training a toddler usually wipe her from back to front, thus “imprinting” that sensation as feeling “right” to her, it is important, rather, that that little girls be taught to wipe themselves from the front to the back to help prevent vaginal and bladder infections. Older girls and women who were taught the wrong way need to make a conscious effort to change their habits.

At the anterior end of the labia, under the pubic bone, is the clitoris, the female equivalent of the penis. This small structure contains erectile tissue and many nerve endings in a sensitive glans within a prepuce which totally encloses the glans. This is the most sensitive point for female sexual stimulation, so senstiive that vigorous, direct stimulation does not feel good. It is better for the man to gently stimulate near the clitoris rather than right on it. Some cultures do a procedure, similar to circumcision, as a puberty rite in teenage girls in which the prepuce is cut, exposing the extremely-sensitive clitoris. There are some interesting speculations on the cultural significance of this because the sensitivity of the exposed clitoris would probably make having sexual intercourse a much less pleasant experience for these women.

Copyright © 1996 by J. Stein Carter. All rights reserved.
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