During sexual reproduction the genetic material of two individuals is combined to produce genetically diverse offspring that differ from their parents. The genetic diversity of sexually produced offspring is thought to give species a better chance of surviving in an unpredictable or changing environment. Species that reproduce sexually must maintain two different types of individuals, males and females, which can limit the ability to colonize new habitats as both sexes must be present.
Sexual reproduction starts with the combination of a sperm and an egg in a process called fertilization. This can occur either inside (internal fertilization) or outside (external fertilization) the body of the female. Humans provide an example of the former whereas seahorse reproduction is an example of the latter.
As animals became more complex, specific organs and organ systems developed to support specific functions for the organism. The reproductive structures that evolved in land animals allow males and females to mate, fertilize internally, and support the growth and development of offspring.
The human male and female reproductive cycles are controlled by the interaction of hormones from the hypothalamus and anterior pituitary with hormones from reproductive tissues and organs. In both sexes, the hypothalamus monitors and causes the release of hormones from the pituitary gland. When the reproductive hormone is required, the hypothalamus sends a gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) to the anterior pituitary.
Pregnancy begins with the fertilization of an egg and continues through to the birth of the individual. The length of time of gestation varies among animals, but is very similar among the great apes: human gestation is 266 days, while chimpanzee gestation is 237 days, a gorilla’s is 257 days, and orangutan gestation is 260 days long. The fox has a 57-day gestation. Dogs and cats have similar gestations averaging 60 days.
The process in which an organism develops from a single-celled zygote to a multi-cellular organism is complex and well-regulated. The early stages of embryonic development are also crucial for ensuring the fitness of the organism.
Gastrulation leads to the formation of the three germ layers that give rise, during further development, to the different organs in the animal body. This process is called organogenesis. Organogenesis is characterized by rapid and precise movements of the cells within the embryo.