Monday, March 17, 2008

Rotifers, sex and locomotion: fast males, slow females

A while back I saw a male rotifer and for the first time knew that it was a male rotifer I was seeing. Three things immediately struck me:
1. Oh! so that's what I've been seeing all this time.
2. Damn they're so tiny compared to the females
3. Golly-gee-willackers they move fast.

To give you a sense of this, observe the following Youtube video I came across. The little bizarrely fast ones are the males.

The males are short-lived, have no digestive system or foot (meaning they can't eat or anchor in one place). They hatch from an unfertilized egg, carry their mothers' genes to other females, and die.

I was discussing this with a friend of mine, who asked, "what good are the males anyway?"

"They're just swimming sperm packets." I replied. But then I thought about it more, and realized the question could be viewed another way. There are plenty of invertebrates that are hermaphroditic. A single individual has both ovaries and testes. I fertelize you while you fertilize me. No need to build a whole separate individual to deliver the sperm. So why go to all the expense of pumping out fleets of males?

Maybe, I thought, it was that speed. The smaller a rotifer is, the faster it can swim. This is the result of the fluid dynamics of how they swim. I don't know a thing about fluid dynamics, so I won't try to explain that, but the data show that swimming speed is predicted with great accuracy by size.

Having fast moving sperm deliverers could have two benefits that immediately occur to me. First, one can spread one's genes much further by producing small, fast males and sending them off in all directions, than by having one big slow female swim around. Especially considering that the female's immediate neighbors have a good chance of being clones of herself, to make sexual reproduction worthwhile, she needs to get get her sperm far away. That may require speed.

Second, maybe being fast is useful in the competition for mating. If the females are not just willing to mate with every rotifer that wanders along, perhaps being fast increases the chance of fertilizing her eggs.

These are all just hypotheses, but they are testable ones, and perhaps some day I will get to testing them.

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