Field of Science


Fish Evolve Stabbier Genitals When Predators Are Near

Like sock garters and homburg hats, the equipment used by our great-grandparents doesn't always cut it for later generations. Certain male fish have evolved differently shaped genitals depending on what other fish share their caves. Attracting females, though, doesn't seem to be as important as not getting eaten.

Most fish reproduce simply by scattering a lot of of eggs and sperm around their environment. But a few types of fish are "livebearers": their eggs are fertilized and hatched inside the female's body, then come swimming out as fully formed miniature fish. Many sharks bear live young. So does Gambusia hubbsi, the Bahamas mosquitofish.

The main difficulty of reproducing this way—at least, the main difficulty from a male perspective—is getting the sperm inside the female's body. You can't just leave it around the ocean and hope for the best. Males in the mosquitofish's family solve this problem with an organ called a gonopodium. The body part's overall size is subject to a couple of different evolutionary pressures: Females of some species prefer a larger gonopodium. But carrying around the bigger organ slows males down when they're trying to escape predators.

Justa Heinen-Kay and R. Brian Langerhans at North Carolina State University were curious about just one part of the gonopodium. The tip is tiny but weapon-like: about one millimeter long, it carries bony hooks, spines, and teeth. It's not big enough slow males down while swimming, or visible enough for females to judge it. Yet the authors wondered whether other evolutionary pressures might be acting on this spiky little body part.

The researchers collected mosquitofish from water-filled, vertical caves in the Bahamas called blue holes. Certain populations of mosquitofish live in caves that also contain their predator Gobiomorus dormitor, the bigmouth sleeper. Other populations live with few predators, and can swim and mate—a process that may or may not involve female cooperation—without the threat of being eaten.

Comparing mosquitofish from 10 caves with predatory bigmouth sleepers and 12 caves without them, Heinen-Kay and Langerhans saw that the fish had evolved different genital shapes. Male mosquitofish that lived with a lot of predators had longer tips on their gonopodia, and those tips were more densely covered in bony bits.

This sturdier, stabbier tip may help a male to work more quickly and efficiently, whether or not the female wants him to. The authors speculate that when predators are nearby and time is short, this genital shape is an advantage. Bony hooks "may serve as holdfast devices," and a longer shape might get sperm farther inside the female while pushing out anything competitors have left behind. But in caves without predators, they add delicately, "males may rely more on cooperation and less on genital shape."

However it helps, modifying the shape of their genitals must be a powerful tool for mosquitofish. Over and over again, fish populations living with predators have evolved in the same way. It's a trend that's here to stay—despite what their ancestors might think.

J. L. HEINEN-KAY, & R. B. LANGERHANS (2013). Predation-associated divergence of male genital morphology in a livebearing fish. Journal of Evolutionary Biology DOI: 10.1111/jeb.12229

Image: Heinen-Kay and Langerhans.

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