Many reptiles and some fish determine offspring sex by environmental cues such as incubation temperature. The mechanism by which environmental signals are captured and transduced into specific sexual phenotypes has remained unexplained for over 50 years. Indeed, environmental sex determination (ESD) has been viewed as an intractable problem because sex determination is influenced by a myriad of genes that may be subject to environmental influence. Recent demonstrations of ancient, conserved epigenetic processes in the regulatory response to environmental cues suggest that the mechanisms of ESD have a previously unsuspected level of commonality, but the proximal sensor of temperature that ultimately gives rise to one sexual phenotype or the other remains unidentified. Here, we propose that in ESD species, environmental cues are sensed by the cell through highly conserved ancestral elements of calcium and redox (CaRe) status, then transduced to activate ubiquitous signal transduction pathways, or influence epigenetic processes, ultimately to drive the differential expression of sex genes. The early evolutionary origins of CaRe regulation, and its essential role in eukaryotic cell function, gives CaRe a propensity to be independently recruited for diverse roles as a ‘cellular sensor’ of environmental conditions. Our synthesis provides the first cohesive mechanistic model connecting environmental signals and sex determination pathways in vertebrates, providing direction and a framework for developing targeted experimentation.