Posts Tagged ‘pollicipes’

19 January, 2013 — Spermcasting

Saturday, January 19th, 2013

Hi Folks,

The news of some days, of course, is better than on others. And the news of the January 16, 2013, was grand! It contained a term I had never seen, but one I will be sure to use whenever possible, “spermcasting”.  I have to admit, when I first read it, it conjured up visions of fly casting, but with some essential differences; such as the type of rod one uses…  Aaah…  But, let’s not go any further down that road. :-)

As the authors of the term meant it, in its basic form spermcasting would be seen in broadcast spawning animals such as many sessile marine invertebrates, and it would presumably have a feminine complement of ovacasting. In other words, “spermcasting” is the release of male gametes into the surrounding water as a means of reproduction. This type of reproduction is also seen in mobile animals such as echinodermsBroadcast spawning animals typically have simple reproductive systems, without any externally visible modifications.  The gametes are made and simply released through a “gonopore” into “the great outside world”.

A male sunflower star Pycnopodia helianthoides photographed  "spermcasting" otherwise known as "broadcast spawning" in Northern Puget Sound.

A male sunflower star Pycnopodia helianthoides photographed “spermcasting” otherwise known as “broadcast spawning” in Northern Puget Sound.

 

A close up of the animal in the previous image showing the sperm suspension being released from the gonopores.

A close up of the animal in the previous image showing the sperm suspension being released from the gonopores.

However, spermcasting is something that is not generally considered to be part of the reproductive behavior of animals with a penis. In fact, over the array of invertebrate animals, the variety of penises, receptacles, openings, and the behaviors to get them all together is truly amazing, but spermcasting has not been considered a part of that behavior.  And why should it?   Because a penis is used to place sperm in some sort of receptacle or opening in a female, spermcasting has been thought to be unnecessary.   

While obviously commonly occurring, the actual physical act of the male’s transferring sperm to the inside of a female’s genital tract, “copulation”, is actually seldom observed in marine animals.  The reason for this is obvious.  For many species where reproduction involves internal fertilization or union of their gametes, reproduction may be an intrinsically hazardous process; and its duration and frequency is often minimized.  Often, copulation involves the intimate meeting of two animals that may be predatory and dangerous to one another. The terrestrial examples of the preying mantis or spiders such as the Black Widow come to mind, but the marine environment also has its share of dangerous liaisons. In such animals copulation often requires all sorts of behavior to ensure that the predatory behavior of both parties is “defused”. Some of the best known examples of such behavior occur in octopuses.

A large individual of the Giant Pacific Octopus, Enteroctopus dofleini.   Highly predatory and cannibalistic, and reaching weights well in excess of 50 kg (110 pounds), precopulatory behavior that may last several hours is necessary  before the animals can safely remain in each other's proximity for reproduction.

A large individual of the Giant Pacific Octopus, Enteroctopus dofleini. Highly predatory and cannibalistic, and reaching weights well in excess of 50 kg (110 pounds), precopulatory behavior that may last several hours is necessary before the animals can safely remain in each other’s proximity for reproduction.

 Copulation may place the animals at risk of predation by animals other than a potential mate. When animals are copulating, their attention cannot be on predator avoidance.  Consequently, natural selection has forced the development of behavior that reduces the risk of being seen – and eaten – such as nocturnal or reclusive mating. In some other animals, the act is over so fast, that the odds of an observer even noticing it range between slim and none. Pairs of one nudibranch species, Hermissenda crassicornis, can “do the deed” in a few seconds. And in those animals the act is reciprocal, the partners are hermaphrodites so each one gives and receives.  However, the process is seldom seen, or if it is, it is seldom recognized for what it is.

Hermissenda crassicornis, the so-called "opalescent nudibranch".  Individuals of this hermaphroditic species reciprocally exchange sperm in some of the fastest copulations known.

Hermissenda crassicornis, the so-called “opalescent nudibranch”. Individuals of this hermaphroditic species reciprocally exchange sperm in some of the fastest copulations known.

As a result, generally, people have inferred internal fertilization or copulation by the presence of a penis and the associated female plumbing. And some animals are legendary in their endowment. Some of the best known in this regard are barnacles whose penises are often able to extend several times the length of the animal. Barnacles don’t actually copulate, relatively few crustaceans do, but they use the penis to deposit sperm in the females’ mantle cavities, and sperm behavior or the female partner ensures the gametes find their ultimate destination. However as the saying goes, this “pseudo-copulation” is “good enough for government work”.  Barnacles are sessile, glued to the substrate by glands in their head, consequently, their reproductive success, and their “evolutionary fitness”, depends on how far they can reach out to touch someone with their legendary penises. Fortunately, as they are hermaphroditic, any neighbor will do.

Balanus nubilus, the giant "cloud" barnacle of the N. E. Pacific.  Large individuals reach up to about 15 cm (6 inches) wide at the base, and are often solitary or a relatively great distance from their neighbors.  Spermcasting would definitely benefit their reproduction.

Balanus nubilus, the giant “cloud” barnacle of the N. E. Pacific. Large individuals reach up to about 15 cm (6 inches) wide at the base, and are often solitary or a relatively great distance from their neighbors. Spermcasting would definitely benefit their reproduction.

The need for (pseudo-) copulation, inferred by the presence of a penis, in barnacles could present a significant limitation in their reproductive capability relative to broadcast spawning animals, and hence it could severely limit their evolutionary fitness. Nonetheless, as far as anybody knew, barnacles put their amazingly large “equipment” to good use, copulated, and “THAT” was “THAT”.

Except, as it turns out “THAT,” is not “THAT”.  In a paper published online on January 16, some scientists have shown, rather elegantly that at least one species of barnacles; the common gooseneck barnacle of the NE Pacific, Pollicipes polymerus, does things quite a bit differently. They spermcast…

They are apparently able to both throw caution to the winds – or their spermies to the seas – and, amazingly enough, have this result in successful fertilization. Using genetic markers and some elegant and careful work, the researchers, from Dr. A. Richard Palmer’s lab at the University of Alberta, have shown that spermcasting occurs commonly in the goose neck barnacle, and even occurs in animals that can reach a partner to mate in the “traditional” manner.

Such extraordinary findings really upset the traditional view of spawning and copulation. After all, if barnacles can spermcast… it certainly seems that other animals possessing normal copulatory organs may also be able to do this.  No longer is it possible to look at the anatomy of species wherein the males possess a penis, and blithely assume that they only reproduce by copulation. 

Of such uncertainty, good research is made, as people have to ascertain the mode of reproduction.

As the authors of this paper state in the abstract, “These observations (i) overturn over a century of beliefs about what barnacles can (or cannot) do in terms of sperm transfer, (ii) raise doubts about prior claims of self-fertilization in barnacles, (iii) raise interesting questions about the capacity for sperm capture in other species (particularly those with short penises), and (iv) show, we believe for the first time, that spermcast mating can occur in an aquatic arthropod.”

More later,

Cheers, Ron