Secondary sex characteristics are traits that distinguish the two sexes of a species, but that are not directly part of the reproductive system. They are believed to be the product of sexual selection for traits which give an individual an advantage over its rivals in courtship, and aggressive interactions. They are distinguished from the primary sexual characteristics: the sex organs, which are directly necessary for reproduction to occur.
Well known secondary sex characteristics include manes of male lions and long feathers of peacocks. In humans, the most visible are breasts of females and beard and moustache of males. Secondary sex characteristics also include the tusks of sea lions, the plumage of many male birds, and the chemical indicators of insects.
Sexual differentiation begins during gestation, when the gonads are formed. General habitus and shape of body and face, as well as sex hormone levels, are similar in prepubertal boys and girls. As puberty progresses and sex hormone levels rise, differences appear, though puberty causes some similar changes in male and female bodies.
Male levels of testosterone directly induce growth of the testicles and penis, and indirectly (via dihydrotestosterone (DHT)) the prostate. Estradiol and other hormones cause breasts to develop in females. However, fetal or neonatal androgens may modulate later breast development by reducing the capacity of breast tissue to respond to later estrogen.
In males, testosterone directly increases size and mass of muscles, vocal cords, and bones, deepening the voice, and changing the shape of the face and skeleton. Converted into DHT in the skin, it accelerates growth of androgen-responsive facial and body hair, but may slow and eventually stop the growth of head hair. Taller stature is largely a result of later puberty and slower epiphyseal fusion.
In females, breasts are a manifestation of higher levels of estrogen; estrogen also widens the pelvis and increases the amount of body fat in hips, thighs, buttocks, and breasts. Estrogen also induces growth of the uterus, proliferation of the endometrium, and menses.
In humans, secondary sex characteristics include:
"Sexual Maturity." Technical Issues in Reproductive Health. Columbia University. May 2, 2008.
Steinhardt, A. "Sexual Reproduction." Hartnell College. May 2, 2008.