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Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2014 Nov;89(4):805-19. doi: 10.1111/brv.12078. Epub 2014 Jan 21.

On the fate of sexual traits under asexuality.

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Center for Ecological and Evolutionary Studies, University of Groningen, 9700CC, Groningen, The Netherlands.


Environmental shifts and life-history changes may result in formerly adaptive traits becoming non-functional or maladaptive. In the absence of pleiotropy and other constraints, such traits may decay as a consequence of neutral mutation accumulation or selective processes, highlighting the importance of natural selection for adaptations. A suite of traits are expected to lose their adaptive function in asexual organisms derived from sexual ancestors, and the many independent transitions to asexuality allow for comparative studies of parallel trait maintenance versus decay. In addition, because certain traits, notably male-specific traits, are usually not exposed to selection under asexuality, their decay would have to occur as a consequence of drift. Selective processes could drive the decay of traits associated with costs, which may be the case for the majority of sexual traits expressed in females. We review the fate of male and female sexual traits in 93 animal lineages characterized by asexual reproduction, covering a broad taxon range including molluscs, arachnids, diplopods, crustaceans and eleven different hexapod orders. Many asexual lineages are still able occasionally to produce males. These asexually produced males are often largely or even fully functional, revealing that major developmental pathways can remain quiescent and functional over extended time periods. By contrast, for asexual females, there is a parallel and rapid decay of sexual traits, especially of traits related to mate attraction and location, as expected given the considerable costs often associated with the expression of these traits. The level of decay of female sexual traits, in addition to asexual females being unable to fertilize their eggs, would severely impede reversals to sexual reproduction, even in recently derived asexual lineages. More generally, the parallel maintenance versus decay of different trait types across diverse asexual lineages suggests that neutral traits display little or no decay even after extended periods under relaxed selection, while extensive decay for selected traits occurs extremely quickly. These patterns also highlight that adaptations can fix rapidly in natural populations of asexual organisms, in spite of their mode of reproduction.


asexuality; parthenogenesis; regressive evolution; sexual traits; trait decay

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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