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Journal Article

Mating behavior and reproductive morphology predict macroevolution of sex allocation in hermaphroditic flatworms


Brand,  Jeremias N.
Department of Tissue Dynamics and Regeneration, Max Planck Institute for Multidisciplinary Sciences, Max Planck Society;

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Brand, J. N., Harmon, L. J., & Schaerer, L. (2022). Mating behavior and reproductive morphology predict macroevolution of sex allocation in hermaphroditic flatworms. BMC Biology, 20(1): 35. doi:10.1186/s12915-022-01234-1.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-000C-0209-8

Sex allocation is the distribution of resources to male or female reproduction. In hermaphrodites, this concerns an individual’s resource allocation to, for example, the production of male or female gametes. Macroevolutionary studies across hermaphroditic plants have revealed that the self-pollination rate and the pollination mode are strong predictors of sex allocation. Consequently, we expect similar factors such as the selfing rate and aspects of the reproductive biology, like the mating behaviour and the intensity of postcopulatory sexual selection, to predict sex allocation in hermaphroditic animals. However, comparative work on hermaphroditic animals is limited. Here, we study sex allocation in 120 species of the hermaphroditic free-living flatworm genus Macrostomum. We ask how hypodermic insemination, a convergently evolved mating behaviour where sperm are traumatically injected through the partner’s epidermis, affects the evolution of sex allocation. We also test the commonly-made assumption that investment into male and female reproduction should trade-off. Finally, we ask if morphological indicators of the intensity of postcopulatory sexual selection (female genital complexity, male copulatory organ length, and sperm length) can predict sex allocation.


We find that the repeated evolution of hypodermic insemination predicts a more female-biased sex allocation (i.e., a relative shift towards female allocation). Moreover, transcriptome-based estimates of heterozygosity reveal reduced heterozygosity in hypodermically mating species, indicating that this mating behavior is linked to increased selfing or biparental inbreeding. Therefore, hypodermic insemination could represent a selfing syndrome. Furthermore, across the genus, allocation to male and female gametes is negatively related, and larger species have a more female-biased sex allocation. Finally, increased female genital complexity, longer sperm, and a longer male copulatory organ predict a more male-biased sex allocation.


Selfing syndromes have repeatedly originated in plants. Remarkably, this macroevolutionary pattern is replicated in Macrostomum flatworms and linked to repeated shifts in reproductive behavior. We also find a trade-off between male and female reproduction, a fundamental assumption of most theories of sex allocation. Beyond that, no theory predicts a more female-biased allocation in larger species, suggesting avenues for future work. Finally, morphological indicators of more intense postcopulatory sexual selection appear to predict more intense sperm competition.