Despite the advantage of avoiding the costs of sexual reproduction, asexual vertebrates are very rare and often considered evolutionarily disadvantaged when compared to sexual species. Asexual species, however, may have advantages when colonizing (new) habitats or competing with sexual counterparts. They are also evolutionary older than expected, leaving the question whether asexual vertebrates are not only rare because of their 'inferior' mode of reproduction but also because of other reasons. A paradigmatic model system is the unisexual Amazon molly, Poecilia formosa, that arose by hybridization of the Atlantic molly, Poecilia mexicana, as the maternal ancestor, and the sailfin molly, Poecilia latipinna, as the paternal ancestor. Our extensive crossing experiments failed to resynthesize asexually reproducing (gynogenetic) hybrids confirming results of previous studies. However, by producing diploid eggs, female F(1) -hybrids showed apparent preadaptation to gynogenesis. In a range-wide analysis of mitochondrial sequences, we examined the origin of P. formosa. Our analyses point to very few or even a single origin(s) of its lineage, which is estimated to be approximately 120,000 years old. A monophyletic origin was supported from nuclear microsatellite data. Furthermore, a considerable degree of genetic variation, apparent by high levels of clonal microsatellite diversity, was found. Our molecular phylogenetic evidence and the failure to resynthesize the gynogenetic P. formosa together with the old age of the species indicate that some unisexual vertebrates might be rare not because they suffer the long-term consequences of clonal reproduction but because they are only very rarely formed as a result of complex genetic preconditions necessary to produce viable and fertile clonal genomes and phenotypes ('rare formation hypothesis').
© 2010 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.