, Volume 69, Issue 3, pp 223-233

Divide or broadcast: Interrelation of asexual and sexual reproduction in a population of the fissiparous hermaphroditic seastar Nepanthia belcheri (Asteroidea: Asterinidae)

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Abstract

Asexual and sexual reproduction were studied in an intertidal population of Nepanthia belcheri (Perrier) at Townsville, Queensland, Australia, by regular sampling over a year (March 1976-March 1977) and by histological analysis of gonads. Fission reached a peak in early winter (April–June), when about 45% of the population showed evidence of recent fission. Propensity for fission was unrelated to longest arm length. Seven-armed seastars predominated in the population and these underwent fission in two stages to produce one 3-armed fragment and two 2-armed fragments. Fission planes were not related to numbers or positions of madreporites. Hermaphroditism was a normal sexual condition in the population. Almost all gonads contained oocytes, but some gonads functioned as ovaries (without spermatogenic tissue) while others functioned as testes. Seastars with mature ovaries were significantly larger than those with mature testes, indicating protandry, as in other hermaphroditic asteroids. However, fission complicates the pattern of gonad development by causing regression or retardation of gonads and by apparently having a masculinizing effect, so that ovaries may change to testes in fission products. There was a period of sexual reproduction in early summer (October–November). This followed the period of intense fission and regeneration, and a population change from predominately functional females to males. Consequently there was an extreme imbalance against mature females at sexual reproduction, further reducing potential fecundity. Thus, sexual reproduction was very subordinate to fission as the means of recruitment. The 450 μm diam eggs probably give rise to pelagic lecithotrophic development and, if this is the case, N. belcheri retains the advantage of complementing reliable recruitment from fission with a dispersive phase. The combination of fission and hermaphroditism is particularly advantageous for a very sparse dispersal of larvae, as a functionally dioecious population may develop from one larva settling in a new locality.

Communicated by G. F. Humphrey, Sydney