Low siring success of females with an acquired male function illustrates the legacy of sexual dimorphism in constraining the breakdown of dioecy

Ecol Lett. 2019 Mar;22(3):486-497. doi: 10.1111/ele.13207. Epub 2019 Jan 7.


Dioecy has often broken down in flowering plants, yielding functional hermaphroditism. We reasoned that evolutionary transitions from dioecy to functional hermaphroditism must overcome an inertia of sexual dimorphism, because modified males or females will express the opposite sexual function for which their phenotypes have been optimised. We tested this prediction by assessing the siring success of monoecious individuals of the plant Mercurialis annua with an acquired male function but that are phenotypically still female-like. We found that pollen dispersed by female-like monoecious individuals was ~ 1/3 poorer at siring outcrossed offspring than pollen from monoecious individuals with an alternative male-like inflorescence. We conclude that whereas dioecy might evolve from functional hermaphroditism by conferring upon individuals certain benefits of sexual specialisation, reversion from a strategy of separate sexes to one of combined sexes must overcome constraints imposed by the advantages of sexual dimorphism. The breakdown of dioecy must therefore often be limited to situations in which outcrossing cannot be maintained and where selection favours a capacity for inbreeding by functional hermaphrodites.

Keywords: Mercurialis annua; Dioecy; functional hermaphroditism; gain curves; inflorescence architecture; monoecy; sex allocation; sexual dimorphism.

Publication types

  • Letter

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnoliopsida*
  • Male
  • Plant Breeding
  • Pollen
  • Reproduction
  • Sex Characteristics*