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, 79 (4), 795-814

How the Sperm Lost Its Tail: The Evolution of Aflagellate Sperm


How the Sperm Lost Its Tail: The Evolution of Aflagellate Sperm

Edward H Morrow. Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc.


The typical sperm is comprised of a head, midpiece and flagellum. Around this theme there is an enormous diversity of form--giant sperm, multi-flagellate sperm and also sperm that lack flagella entirely. Explaining this diversity in sperm morphology is a challenging question that evolutionary biologists have only recently engaged in. Nonetheless, one of the selective forces identified as being an important factor in the evolution of sperm form is sperm competition, which occurs when the sperm of two or more males compete to fertilize a female's ova. In species with a truly monandrous mating system, the absence of sperm competition means that the selection pressure on males to produce motile sperm may be relaxed. Potentially aflagellate sperm are less costly to produce, both in terms of energy and time. Thus, selection may therefore favour the loss of the sperm flagellum and any other motile mechanisms in monandrous taxa. A review of the literature revealed that 36 taxonomic groups, from red algae to fish, were found independently to have evolved aflagellate sperm. I review what is known about the mating systems of each of these taxa and their nearest sister taxa. A sister-group analysis using this information provided weak evidence suggesting that the evolution of aflagellate sperm could be linked to the removal of selective pressures generated by sperm competition.

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