The evolution of dioecy, heterodichogamy, and labile sex expression in Acer

Evolution. 2007 Nov;61(11):2701-19. doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2007.00221.x. Epub 2007 Sep 25.


The northern hemisphere tree genus Acer comprises 124 species, most of them monoecious, but 13 dioecious. The monoecious species flower dichogamously, duodichogamously (male, female, male), or in some species heterodichogamously (two morphs that each produce male and female flowers but at reciprocal times). Dioecious species cannot engage in these temporal strategies. Using a phylogeny for 66 species and subspecies obtained from 6600 nucleotides of chloroplast introns, spacers, and a protein-coding gene, we address the hypothesis (Pannell and Verdú, Evolution 60: 660-673. 2006) that dioecy evolved from heterodichogamy. This hypothesis was based on phylogenetic analyses (Gleiser and Verdú, New Phytol. 165: 633-640. 2005) that included 29-39 species of Acer coded for five sexual strategies (duodichogamous monoecy, heterodichogamous androdioecy, heterodichogamous trioecy, dichogamous subdioecy, and dioecy) treated as ordered states or as a single continuous variable. When reviewing the basis for these scorings, we found errors that together with the small taxon sample, cast doubt on the earlier inferences. Based on published studies, we coded 56 species of Acer for four sexual strategies, dioecy, monoecy with dichogamous or duodichogamous flowering, monoecy with heterodichogamous flowering, or labile sex expression, in which individuals reverse their sex allocation depending on environment-phenotype interactions. Using Bayesian character mapping, we infer an average of 15 transformations, a third of them involving changes from monoecy-cum-duodichogamy to dioecy; less frequent were changes from this strategy to heterodichogamy; dioecy rarely reverts to other sexual systems. Contra the earlier inferences, we found no switches between heterodichogamy and dioecy. Unexpectedly, most of the species with labile sex expression are grouped together, suggesting that phenotypic plasticity in Acer may be a heritable sexual strategy. Because of the complex flowering phenologies, however, a concern remains that monoecy in Acer might not always be distinguishable from labile sex expression, which needs to be addressed by long-term monitoring of monoecious trees. The 13 dioecious species occur in phylogenetically disparate clades that date back to the Late Eocene and Oligocene, judging from a fossil-calibrated relaxed molecular clock.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Acer / genetics*
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental
  • Models, Biological
  • Phylogeny*
  • Plant Physiological Phenomena*
  • Sex Determination Processes*
  • Species Specificity