Intersex occurrence in freshwater fishes was evaluated for nine river basins in the United States. Testicular oocytes (predominantly male testes containing female germ cells) were the most pervasive form of intersex observed, even though similar numbers of male (n = 1477) and female (n = 1633) fish were examined. Intersex was found in 3% of the fish collected. The intersex condition was observed in four of the 16 species examined (25%) and in fish from 34 of 111 sites (31%). Intersex was not found in multiple species from the same site but was most prevalent in largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides; 18% of males) and smallmouth bass (M. dolomieu; 33% of males). The percentage of intersex fish per site was 8-91% for largemouth bass and 14-73% for smallmouth bass. The incidence of intersex was greatest in the southeastern United States, with intersex largemouth bass present at all sites in the Apalachicola, Savannah, and Pee Dee River Basins. Total mercury, trans-nonachlor, p,p???-DDE, p,p???-DDD, and total PCBs were the most commonly detected chemical contaminants at all sites, regardless of whether intersex was observed. Although the genotype of the intersex fish was not determined, the microscopic appearance of the gonads, the presence of mature sperm, and the concentrations of sex steroid hormones and vitellogenin indicate the intersex bass were males. Few reproductive endpoints differed significantly among male and intersex bass; plasma vitellogenin concentration in males was not a good indicator of intersex presence. Hierarchical linkages of the intersex condition to reproductive function will require a more quantitative measure of intersex (e.g. severity index) rather than presence or absence of the condition. The baseline incidence of intersex gonadal tissue in black basses and other freshwater fishes is unknown, but intersex prevalence may be related to collection season, age, and endocrine active compounds in the environment. Intersex was not found in largemouth bass older than five years and was most common in 1-3-year-old male largemouth bass. The cause(s) of intersex in these species is also unknown, and it remains to be determined whether the intersex we observed in largemouth and smallmouth bass developed during sex differentiation in early life stages, during exposure to environmental factors during adult life stages, or both.
Additional publication details
Widespread occurrence of intersex in black basses (Micropterus spp.) from U.S. rivers, 1995-2004