Sperm macrocephaly syndrome in the ostrich Struthio camelus : morphological characteristics and implications for motility

01 Apr 2019

Sperm macrocephaly syndrome (SMS) is characterised by a high percentage of spermatozoa with enlarged heads and multiple tails, and is related to infertility. Although this multiple sperm defect has been described in other mammalian species, little is known about this anomaly in birds. Morphological examination of semen from nine South African black ostriches (Struthio camelus var. domesticus) involved in an AI trial revealed the variable presence of spermatozoa with large heads and multiple tails. Ultrastructural features of the defect were similar to those reported in mammals except that the multiple tails were collectively bound within the plasmalemma. The tails were of similar length and structure to those of normal spermatozoa, and the heads were 1.6-fold longer, emphasising the uniformity of the anomaly across vertebrate species. Flow cytometry identified these cells as diploid and computer-aided sperm analysis revealed that they swim slower but straighter than normal spermatozoa, probably due to the increased drag of the large head and constrained movement of the merged multiple tails. The high incidence of this defect in one male ostrich indicates that, although rare, SMS can occur in birds and may potentially have an adverse effect on breeding programs, particularly for endangered species.