Background: Considerable attention has focused on how selection on dispersal and other core life-history strategies (reproductive effort, survival ability, colonization capacity) may lead to so-called dispersal syndromes. Studies on genetic variation in these syndromes within species could importantly increase our understanding of their evolution, by revealing whether traits co-vary across genetic lineages in the manner predicted by theoretical models, and by stimulating further hypotheses for experimental testing. Yet such studies remain scarce. Here we studied the ciliated protist Tetrahymena thermophila, a particularly interesting organism due to cells being able to transform into morphs differing dramatically in swim-speed. We investigated dispersal, morphological responses, reproductive performance, and survival in ten different clonal strains. Then, we examined whether life history traits co-varied in the manner classically predicted for ruderal species, examined the investment of different strains into short- and putative long-distance dispersal, while considering also the likely impact of semi-sociality (cell aggregation, secretion of 'growth factors') on dispersal strategies.
Results: Very significant among-strain differences were found with regard to dispersal rate, morphological commitment and plasticity, and almost all core life-history traits (e.g. survival, growth performance and strategy), with most of these traits being significantly intercorrelated. Some strains showed high short-distance dispersal rates, high colonization capacity, bigger cell size, elevated growth performance, and good survival abilities. These well performing strains, however, produced fewer fast-swimming dispersal morphs when subjected to environmental degradation than did philopatric strains performing poorly under normal conditions.
Conclusion: Strong evidence was found for a genetic covariation between dispersal strategies and core life history traits in T. thermophila, with a fair fit of observed trait associations with classic colonizer models. However, the well performing strains with high colonization success and short-distance dispersal likely suffered under a long-distance dispersal disadvantage, due to producing fewer fast-swimming dispersal morphs than did philopatric strains. The smaller cell size at carrying capacity of the latter strains and their poor capacity to colonize as individual cells suggest that they may be adapted to greater levels of dependency on clone-mates (stronger sociality). In summary, differential exposure to selection on competitive and cooperative abilities, in conjunction with selective factors targeting specifically dispersal distance, likely contributed importantly to shaping T. thermophila dispersal and life history evolution.