Word of the week: gynandromorph.
It’s a mouthful. If you’ve got a decent vocabulary, you might be able to break it down, and then start picking up the pieces to figure out what it means. Maybe you’ll separate out the -morph piece first…it has something to do with form or shape. Perhaps the -andro- component will stand out next…it’s masculine, or male. Leaving that little gyn- prefix…feminine, or female.
What does it all mean?
Alright, no further suspense:
A gynandromorph is an organism having both male and female characteristics.This isn’t to be confused with a hermaphrodite, a creature with the reproductive organs of both sexes. A gynandromorph butterfly might be entirely female, except for one wing with male patterning. A gynandromorph chicken might be fully male, but for the entirely female feathers and leg on one side.
Although the phenomenon is typically noted in insects (especially butterflies), it also occurs in crustaceans (crabs and lobsters) and some varieties of bird (zebra finches, parrots, pigeons, and the aforementioned chickens).
What’s interesting is that research into this phenomena is overturning long-held beliefs that animal sexual identity is based primarily on genetics and hormones. In the case of gynandromorphs, the problem (for lack of a better word) traces back to a cell division defect at the earliest stage of development: sex chromosomes split (or fail to split) in an unusual way, resulting in cells that are genetically of both sexes but in a single organism.
(Here’s an understandable explanation of how and why this works on the insect cellular level. And why you don’t see it in humans.)
Gynandromorph is not a brand new word. The pieces (all from the Greek) were put together in this combination by the early 1840s. The word has existed in the realm of specialists, primarily entomologists, but has been adopted as needed in other branches of biology.
The word has made it into the press in recent years as well. There was a flurry last year over the gynandromorphous butterflies at the Natural History Museum in London. In 2010, there was some attention paid to those chickens.
Never underestimate the weirdness of the natural world. If you ever begin to think there are no more surprises, something even more unexpected will turn up.
Gynandrochicken photo: The Roslin Institute at the University of Edinburgh.
Gynandromorph buttery: The Natural History Museum (London).