Marine Biology

, 166:69 | Cite as

Forever fissiparous: asexual propagation and stable demography in a tropical and geographically isolated asterinid sea star

  • Matthew Clements
  • Kennedy WolfeEmail author
  • Kit Schwartz
  • Maria Byrne
Original Paper


Sea stars of the family Asterinidae are well known for their diverse life history strategies encompassing sexual reproduction through various larval forms, while others, all multi-armed species, through clonal asexual reproduction. For at least 25 years, a geographically isolated population of the minute (radius < 7 mm) tropical Pacific fissiparous asterinid, Ailsastra heteractis, has been locally abundant in a shallow water coral rubble habitat at One Tree Island, southern Great Barrier Reef. The population biology of this sea star was investigated over 14 years to characterise its asexual reproduction through fission (splitting in half) and to determine whether a size threshold is reached for an expected switch to sexual reproduction. Fission followed by regeneration was the dominant propagation mechanism generating individuals that varied in arm number (2–7) and length (0.5–6.9 mm). Recently split individuals were present year round with regenerating individuals being the most prevalent body form. Growth rates and fission activity, as measured by mean arm length, varied among months but with no overall pattern. Analyses of arm length data based on season indicated that fission activity was lowest in autumn. There was a positive correlation between the incidence of fission and air and water temperature with a decrease in the proportion of recently split individuals in winter and an increase in summer. Fission was present in all size classes with no evidence of a switch to a larger sexual morphotype with growth. Juvenile recruitment from sexual reproduction was not evident. Extensive searches did not reveal the presence of other populations of A. heteractis. The absence of recruitment and reproductive organs coupled with a stable population demography indicates that propagation by fission is the only reproductive mechanism for the A. heteractis population.



Thanks to the staff of One Tree Island Research Station, a facility of the University of Sydney, and to the Australian Museum for access to collections. Thanks to Dr. Frank Rowe who assisted with species identification and colleagues that assisted and provided photographs in particular, Dr. Mary Sewell, Dr. Alan Dartnall, Dr. Aline Martinez and Neal Asthana. The reviewers are also thanked for insightful comments.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All applicable international, national and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. This article does not contain any studies with human participants performed by any of the authors.

Supplementary material

227_2019_3518_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (6.8 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 6962 kb)


  1. Achituv Y, Sher E (1991) Sexual reproduction and fission in the sea star Asterina burtoni from the Mediterranean coast of Israel. Bull Mar Sci 48:670–678Google Scholar
  2. Allen JD, Reitzel AM, Jaeckle W (2018) Asexual reproduction of marine invertebrate embryos and larvae. In: Carrier TJ, Reitzel AM, Heyland A (eds) Evolutionary ecology of marine invertebrate larvae. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 67–87Google Scholar
  3. Allen JD, Richardson EL, Deaker D, Antonio Agüera A, Byrne M (2019) Larval cloning in the crown-of-thorns sea star, a keystone coral predator. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 609:271–276CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Alves SLS, Pereira AD, Ventura CRR (2002) Sexual and asexual reproduction of Coscinasterias tenuispina (Echinodermata: Asteroidea) from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Mar Biol 140:95–101CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Barker MF (2013) Coscinasterias. In: Lawrence JM (ed) Starfish Biology and Ecology of the Asteroidea. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, pp 191–200Google Scholar
  6. Barker MF, Scheibling RE (2008) Rates of fission, somatic growth and gonadal development of a fissiparous sea star, Allostichaster insignis, in New Zealand. Mar Biol 153:815–824CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bosch I, Rivkin RB, Alexander SP (1989) Asexual reproduction by oceanic planktotrophic echinoderm larvae. Nature 337(6203):169–170CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Byrne M (2006) Life history diversity and evolution in the Asterinidae. Int Comp Biol 46:243–254CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Byrne M (2019) Echinodermata. In: Hutchings P, Kingsford M, Hoegh-Guldberg O (eds) The great barrier reef: biology, environment and management. CSRIO Publishing, Collingwood, pp 296–307Google Scholar
  10. Byrne M, O'Hara T (eds) (2017) Australian echinoderms: biology, ecology and evolution. CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne and ABRS, Canberra, p 612Google Scholar
  11. Byrne M, Walker SJ (2007) Distribution and reproduction of intertidal species of Aquilonastra and Cryptasterina (Asterinidae) from One Tree Reef, Southern Great Barrier Reef. Bull Mar Sci 81:209–218Google Scholar
  12. Byrne M, Mazzone F, Elphick MR, Thorndyke MC, Cisternas P (2019) Expression of the neuropeptide SALMFamide-1 during regeneration of the seastar radial nerve cord following arm autotomy. Proc R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 286(1901):20182701CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Chao SM, Tsai CC (1995) Reproduction and population dynamics of the fissiparous brittle star Ophiactis savignyi (Echinodermata: Ophiuroidea). Mar Biol 124:77–83CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Chao SM, Chen CP, Alexander PS (1993) Fission and its effect on population structure of Holothuria atra (Echinodermata: Holothuroidea) in Taiwan. Mar Biol 116:109–115CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Core Team R (2019) R: A language and environment for statistical computing. R Foundation for Statistical Computing, ViennaGoogle Scholar
  16. Crump RG, Barker MF (1985) Sexual and asexual reproduction in geographically separated populations of the fissiparous asteroid Coscinasterias calamaria (Gray). J Exp Mar Biol Ecol 88:109–127CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Dartnall A, Stevens H, Byrne M (2012) How to lose a population: the effect of Cyclone Larry on a population of Cryptasterina pentagona at Mission Beach, North Queensland. In: Johnson C (ed) Echinoderms in a changing world. CRC Press Taylor & Francis Group, New York, pp 181–184CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Emson RH, Wilkie IC (1980) Fission and autotomy in echinoderms. Oceanog Mar Biol Ann Rev 18:155–250Google Scholar
  19. Garcia-Cisneros A, Palacín C, Ventura CRR, Feital B, Pavia PC, Pérez-Portela R (2016) Intraspecific genetic structure, divergence and high rates of clonality in an amphi-Atlantic starfish. Mol Ecol 27:752–772CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Haramoto S, Komatsu M, Yamazaki Y (2006) Population genetic structures of the fissiparous sea star Coscinasterias acutispina in the Sea of Japan. Mar Biol 149:813–820CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hughes TP, Kerry JT, Álvarez-Noriega M, Álvarez-Romero JG, Anderson KD, Baird AH, Babcock RC, Beger M, Bellwood DR, Berkelmans R, Bridge TC, Butler IR, Byrne M, Cantin NE, Comeau S, Connolly SR, Cumming GS, Dalton SJ, Diaz-Pulido G, Eakin CM, Figueira WF, Gilmour JP, Harrison HB, Heron SF, Hoey AS, Hobbs J-PA, Hoogenboom MO, Kennedy EV, Kuo C-Y, Lough JM, Lowe RJ, Liu G, McCulloch MT, Malcolm HA, McWilliam MJ, Pandolfi JM, Pears RJ, Pratchett MS, Schoepf V, Simpson T, Skirving WJ, Sommer B, Torda G, Wachenfeld DR, Willis BL, Wilson SK (2017) Global warming and recurrent mass bleaching of corals. Nature 543:373–377CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Jaeckle WB (1994) Multiple modes of asexual reproduction by tropical and subtropical sea star larvae: an unusual adaption for genet dispersal and survival. Biol Bull 186:62–71CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Lawrence JM (1992) Arm loss and regeneration in Asteroidea (Echinodermata). In: Scalera-Liaci L, Canicatti C (eds) Echinoderm research 1991. Balkema, Rotterdam, pp 39–52Google Scholar
  24. Lawrence JM, Herrera J (2000) Stress and deviant reproduction in echinoderms. Zool Studies 39:151–171Google Scholar
  25. Lee J, Byrne M, Uthicke S (2008) The influence of population density on fission and growth of Holothuria atra in natural mesocosms. J Exp Mar Biol Ecol 365:126–135CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Lee J, Uthicke S, Byrne M (2009) Asexual reproduction and observations of sexual reproduction in the aspidochirotid sea cucumber Holothuria difficilis. Inv Reprod Dev 53:87–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Martinez AS, Byrne M, Coleman RA (2017) Filling in the grazing puzzle: a synthesis of herbivory in starfish. Oceanog Mar Biol Ann Rev 55:11–44Google Scholar
  28. Mayr E (1954) Change of genetic environment and evolution. In: Huxleya J (ed) Evolution as a process. Allen and Unwin, London, pp 157–180Google Scholar
  29. Melzner F, Gutowska MA, Langenbuch M (2009) Physiological basis for high CO2 tolerance in marine ectothermic animals: pre-adaptation through lifestyle and ontogeny? Biogeoscience 6:2313–2331CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Mladenov PV (1996) Environmental factors influencing asexual reproductive processes in echinoderms. Oceanol Acta 19:227–235Google Scholar
  31. Mladenov PV, Emson RH (1984) Divide and broadcast: sexual reproduction in the West Indian brittle star Ophiocomella ophiactoides and its relationship to fissiparity. Mar Biol 81:273–282CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Mladenov PV, Carson SF, Walker CW (1986) Reproductive ecology of an obligately fissiparous population of the sea star Stephanasterias albula (Stimpson). J Exp Mar Biol 96:155–175CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Nei M, Maruyama T, Chakraborty R (1975) The bottleneck effect and genetic variability in populations. Evolution 29:1–10CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. O’Loughlin PM, Rowe FWE (2005) A new asterinid genus from the Indo-West Pacific region, including five new species (Echinodermata: Asteroidea: Asterinidae). Memoirs of Museum Victoria 62:181–189CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. O’Loughlin PM, Rowe FWE (2006) A systematic revision of the asterinid genus Aquilonastra O’Loughlin, 2004 (Echinodermata: Asteroidea). Mem Mus Vic 63:257–287CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Ooka S, Takeda M, Komatsu M (2010) Sexual reproduction of the small fissiparous sea star Aquilonastra conandae (Asteroidea: Asterinidae) in La Reunion Island. In: Harris LG, Böttger SA, Walker CW, Lesser MP (eds) Echinoderms: Durham. CRC Press/Balkema, Leiden, pp 467–472Google Scholar
  37. Ottesen PO, Lucas JS (1982) Divide or broadcast: interrelation of asexual and sexual reproduction in a population of the fissiparous hermaphroditic seastar Nepanthia belcheri (Asteroidea: Asterinidae). Mar Biol 69:223–233CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Overdyk LM, Scheibling RE, Barker MF (2016) Asexual reproduction and somatic growth of the fissiparous sea star Allostichaster polyplax in New Zealand. Mar Biol Res 12:85–95CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Pazoto CEM, Ventura CRR, Silva EP (2010) Genetic contribution of sexual and asexual reproduction to the recruitment of a sexually unbalanced population of Coscinasterias tenuispina (Echinodermata: Asteroidea) in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. In: Harris LG, Böttger SA, Walker CW, Lesser MP (eds) Echinoderms: Durham. CRC Press/Balkema, Leiden, pp 473–478Google Scholar
  40. Przeslawski R, Ahyong S, Byrne M, Wörheides G, Hutchings P (2008) Beyond corals and fish: the effects of climate change on noncoral benthic invertebrates of tropical reefs. Glob Change Biol 14:2773–2795CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Rubilar T, Pastor CT, Diaz de Vivar ME (2005a) Sexual and asexual reproduction of Allostichaster capensis (Echinodermata: Asteroidea) in Golfo Nuevo. Mar Biol 146:1083–1090CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Rubilar T, Pastor CT, Diaz de Vivar ME (2005b) Timing of fission in the starfish Allostichaster capensis (Echinodermata: Asteroidea) in laboratory. Rev Biol Trop 53(Supplement 3):299–303PubMedGoogle Scholar
  43. Sanford E, Kelly MW (2011) Local adaptation in marine invertebrates. Ann Rev Mar Sci 3:509–535CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Short AD (2006) Australian beach systems—nature and distribution. J Coast Res 22:11–27CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Sköld M, Barker MF, Mladenov PV (2002) Spatial variability in sexual and asexual reproduction of the fissiparous seastar Coscinasterias muricata: the role of food and fluctuating temperature. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 233:143–155CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Somero GN (2010) The physiology of climate change: how potentials for acclimatisation and genetic adaptation will determine ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. J Exp Biol 213:912–920CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Somero GN (2012) The physiology of global change: linking patterns to mechanisms. Ann Rev Mar Sci 4:39–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Sterling KA, Shuster SM (2011) Rates of fission in Aquilonastra corallicola Marsh (Echinodermata: Asteroidea) as affected by population density. Invert Reprod Dev 55:1–5CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Templeton AR (1980) The theory of speciation via the founder principle. Genetics 94:1011–1038PubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  50. Uthicke S, Schaffelke B, Byrne M (2009) A boom-bust phylum? Ecological and evolutionary consequences of density variations in echinoderms. Ecol Monogr 79:3–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Wilkie IC (2001) Autotomy as a prelude to regeneration in echinoderms. Microsc Res Tech 55:369–396CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Wilkie IC, Emson RH, Mladenov PV (1984) Morphological and mechanical aspects of fission in Ophiocomella ophiactoides (Echinodermata, Ophiuroida). Zoomorphology 104:310–322CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Wolfe K, Dworjanyn SA, Byrne M (2013) Effects of ocean warming and acidification on survival, growth and skeletal development in the early benthic juvenile sea urchin (Heliocidaris erythrogramma). Glob Change Biol 19:2698–2707CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Woolsey E, Bainbridge SJ, Kingsford MJ, Byrne M (2012) Impacts of cyclone Hamish at One Tree Reef: integrating environmental and benthic habitat data. Mar Biol 159:793–803CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Medical SciencesThe University of SydneySydneyAustralia
  2. 2.Marine Spatial Ecology Lab, School of Biological Sciences and ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef StudiesThe University of QueenslandSt. LuciaAustralia
  3. 3.School of Life and Environmental ScienceThe University of SydneySydneyAustralia

Personalised recommendations