The extent, causes, and physiological significance of the variation in number of follicles growing during ovarian follicular waves in human beings and cattle are unknown. Therefore, the present study examined the variability and repeatability in numbers of follicles 3 mm or greater in diameter during the follicular waves in bovine estrous cycles, and we determined if the variation in number of follicles during waves was associated with alterations in secretion of FSH, estradiol, inhibin, and insulin-like growth factor I (IGF-I). Dairy cattle were subjected to twice-daily ultrasound analysis to count total number of antral follicles 3 mm or greater in diameter throughout 138 different follicular waves. In another study, blood samples were taken at frequent intervals from cows that consistently had low or very high numbers of follicles during waves and were subjected to immunoassays. Results indicate the following: First, despite an approximately sevenfold variation in number of follicles during waves among animals and marked differences in age, stage of lactation, and season of the year, a very highly repeatable (0.95) number of follicles 3 mm or greater in diameter is maintained during the ovulatory and nonovulatory follicular waves of individuals. Second, variation in number of follicles 3 mm or greater in diameter during waves and the inverse association of number of follicles during waves with FSH are not directly explained by alterations in the patterns of secretion of estradiol, inhibin, or IGF-I. Third, ovarian ultrasound analysis can be used reliably by investigators to identify cattle that consistently have low or high numbers of follicles during waves, thus providing a novel experimental model to determine the causes and physiological significance of the high variation in antral follicle number during follicular waves among single-ovulating species, such as cattle or humans.
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