Environmental stability and the distribution of the sexes: insights from life history experiments with the geographic parthenogen Eucypris virens (Crustacea: Ostracoda)

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Abstract

In many species with mixed reproduction, parthenogens cover a wider geographic range than sexuals. In freshwater ostracods this pattern referred to as geographic parthenogenesis is traditionally explained by ascribing a higher potential for dispersal to parthenogens. For example, the postglacial invasion hypothesis states that the lack of males in northern Europe is caused by the relatively slow range expansion of sexual lineages after deglaciation. An alternative explanation for the contemporary distribution of the sexes is based on spatial and temporal variations in ecological habitat stability. To test this hypothesis, we compared life history data of Eucypris virens individuals originating from bisexual and all-female populations. Populations with males are only found around the Mediterranean, whereas parthenogens cover most of Europe. The animals were hatched and grown in environments mimicking temperature and photoperiod conditions observed in Belgium and Spain. The data confirm the higher potential for population growth in parthenogens. In particular their faster hatching response, possibly higher fecundity (as derived from a difference in body height) and the absence of a cost of males should allow them to out-compete sexuals under stable conditions. However, the comparison of the hatchling accumulation curves of bisexual and all-female populations suggests that sexuals have an advantage in highly unpredictable environments. Indeed, under conditions mimicking those in southern Europe, bisexual populations exhibit a bet-hedging strategy, while parthenogenetic resting eggs hatch on average earlier and more synchronously. Overall, the life history data stress the importance of short term environmental fluctuations for the distribution of the sexes in E. virens, and probably many other inhabitants of ephemeral water bodies.

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