Mating behavior and the evolution of sperm design

Publication Type:Journal Article
Year of Publication:2011
Authors:Schärer, Littlewood, Waeschenbach, Yoshida, Vizoso
Journal:Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Sperm are the most diverse of all animal cell types, and much of the diversity in sperm design is thought to reflect adaptations to the highly variable conditions under which sperm function and compete to achieve fertilization. Recent work has shown that these conditions often evolve rapidly as a consequence of multiple mating, suggesting a role for sexual selection and sexual conflict in the evolution of sperm design. However, very little of the striking diversity in sperm design is understood functionally, particularly in internally fertilizing organisms. We use phylogenetic comparative analyses covering 16 species of the hermaphroditic flatworm genus Macrostomum to show that a complex sperm design is associated with reciprocal mating and that this complexity is lost secondarily when hypodermic insemination—sperm injection through the epidermis—evolves. Specifically, the complex sperm design, which includes stiff lateral bristles, is likely a male persistence trait associated with sexual conflicts over the fate of received ejaculates and linked to female resistance traits, namely an intriguing postcopulatory sucking behavior and a thickened epithelium of the sperm-receiving organ. Our results suggest that the interactions between sperm donor, sperm, and sperm recipient can change drastically when hypodermic insemination evolves, involving convergent evolution of a needle-like copulatory organ, a simpler sperm design, and a simpler female genital morphology. Our study documents that a shift in the mating behavior may alter fundamentally the conditions under which sperm compete and thereby lead to a drastic change in sperm design.

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