Non-genetic polymorphisms in rotifers: environmental and endogenous controls, development, and features for predictable or unpredictable environments

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Abstract

Pronounced non-genetic polymorphisms, or polyphenisms, occur in some monogonont rotifers reproducing by diploid, female parthenogenesis. In many brachionids, there is great variation in spine length. In trimorphic species of Asplanchna, females can vary in size and shape, from a small saccate morph to giant cruciform and campanulate morphs. In species that also reproduce sexually, diploid eggs can develop into two types of females. Amictic females produce diploid eggs that develop parthenogenetically into females; mictic females produce haploid eggs that develop parthenogenetically into males or, if fertilized, into resting eggs. In a species of Synchaeta, amictic females produce diploid eggs that can be either thin-shelled and subitaneous or thicker-shelled and diapausing. In all cases, morph determination occurs during the oogenesis or embryological development of diploid eggs in the maternal body cavity. For the first time, these polymorphisms are reviewed together and compared regarding a number of features associated with transitions from default to induced morphs: (i) type of variation (morphological, physiological, or both; continuous or discrete); (ii) inducing signal (environmental, endogenous, or both); (iii) universality of response to that signal (all or only some individuals); (iv) fitness cost; (v) reversibility; and (vi) ecological significance. Most of the polymorphisms fall into two major categories regarding these features. Transitions suitable for predictable environments involve: universal responses to environmental signals; continuous morphological variation; low reproductive cost; rapid reversibility; and adaptations for defence, hydrodynamics or prey ingestion. Transitions suitable for unpredictable environments are bet-hedging strategies and usually involve: partial (stochastic) responses to environmental or endogenous signals; discontinuous physiological variation; initiation of diapause, and thus high reproductive cost and slow reversibility. Two cases of morphological variation also involve the simultaneous production of different morphs and likely are adaptations for an uncertain future: continuous spine-length variation due to maternal age in Brachionus calyciflorus, and production of discrete cruciform and campanulate females in Asplanchna spp.

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