Thursday, September 6, 2012

Rapid speciation in starfish

ResearchBlogging.orgAustralian waters are extremely rich in starfish species. Indeed, a little over 15% of all known species of starfish occur in Australia. For at least two of these starfish, speciation occurred extraordinarily fast. At most, they became separated about 22 thousand years ago, but the best estimate for the timing of the split is about 6 thousand years ago.

We know that evolution can be very rapid (e.g. sticklebacks) and that sometimes this leads to speciation (e.g. cichlids). But, in these cases selection is probably acting on a small number of alleles that are already present in the population. What makes the starfish study so breathtaking is that there has been profound changes to life history in the two species, which likely involved selection on many morphological and physiological traits.

Puritz et al. looked at Cryptasterina pentagona and its sister species C. hystria. Like most starfish, C. pentagona has separate sexes and reproduces by 'broadcasting' sperm and eggs into the water column where fertilisation occurs. In stark contrast, C. hystria produces both sperm and eggs simultaneously, and it exclusively self-fertilises within its own body cavity. The embryos of C. pentagona develop in the plankton, while C. hystria broods its offspring within the gonad until they are ready to emerge as small starfish.

It takes an expert to distinguish Cryptasterina hystria (top) and C. pentagona (bottom) in the wild. In fact I've seen the bottom picture shown as C. hystria and C. pentagona, but I think I got it right (photo Jon Puritz).
Puritz et al. speculate that water temperature may have provided the selective pressure that favoured the evolution of the C. hystria life history. Viviparity, like that seen in C. hystria, has been documented in a number of other starfish species. And it is consistently associated with species that occur in colder water. The two Cryptasterina species are separated by about 375 kilometers, with C. pentagona in the warmer north and C. hystria to the cooler south.

The authors also argue that small population size may have selected for self-fertilisation. If there are so few individuals in the population that your gametes are unlikely to meet another individual's, it's better to fertilise your own than to not reproduce at all. It's expected that genetic variation in a population that self-fertilises should be very low. But, genetic variation in C. hystria is so low it suggests the whole species derived from very few individuals, perhaps just a single one.

The transition from broadcast spawning with planktonic larval development to self-fertilisation with larvae brooded within the gonad has occurred in another Cryptasterina species, C. pacifica. In the closely related genus Parvulastra, a similar transition has occurred too, but probably over 500 thousand years. This suggests that the genetic variation required for the dramatic shift in life history is widely present in the group of starfish to which the genera Cryptasterina and Parvulastra belong. But, the speed at which evolution has occurred is truly astonishing.

Parvulastra exigua, note its similarity to the Cryptasterina species (photo Museum Victoria).
Puritz JB, Keever CC, Addison JA, Byrne M, Hart MW, Grosberg RK, & Toonen RJ (2012). Extraordinarily rapid life-history divergence between Cryptasterina sea star species. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society, 279 (1744), 3914-3922 PMID: 22810427


  1. Great article and blog! However, I wish you would call them sea stars, not starfish. The Asteroidea are not remotely related to fish. Its a common vernacular mistake that the community is trying to change.

    1. Seahorses aren't horses. Killer whales aren't whales. Seagrasses aren't grass. Arrow worms aren't worms. Vampire squid aren't squid. Hairy stone crabs aren't crabs. The litany of taxonomic mistakes in common names is endless. I like to call starfish, starfish, because in my personal experience I find that it actually causes less confusion than referring to them sea stars.

      If you want to get really picky, the Asteroidea are actually more closely related to fish than almost all other invertebrates. Only tunicates are more closely related. And 'fish' represent a huge polyphyletic group where some representatives, like coelocanths, are more closely related to mammals than they are to other things we call fish.

      I appreciate you reading my blog and I appreciate the feedback. I hope you don't mind if I don't take it all on board.

      P.S. sea stars aren't stars :)


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