Arxiu d'etiquetes: parthenogenesis

The (a)sexual life of insects

Most of insects are dioecious, reproduce sexually by mating and lay eggs. However, as a group they have developed many other reproductive strategies.

Discover them through this article!

Types of reproduction

Sexual reproduction

Sexual reproduction involves the participation of specialized sexual cells or gametes originated in the sexual organs by meiosis. It is the most common type of reproduction among arthropods and insects.

1. Amphygony

In amphygony, two types of gametes are generated, which lead to the formation of the embryo once they fuse. Most of amphygonic insects are unisexual or dioecious, so each organism generates only one type of gamete. In fact, only a few cases in which a single organism generates more than one type of gamete (hermaphroditism) are currently known; i. e. Icerya purchasi (Hemiptera), Perla marginata (Plecoptera) and several species of the family Termitoxenidae (Diptera).

Icerya purchasi (left; picture property of Vijay Cavale, CC 3.0) and Perla marginata (right; picture property of gailhampshire en Flickr, CC 2.0).

Finding mate and courtship

In dioecious organisms, the fusion of the gametes takes place once they find a mate. Insects develop diverse and complex strategies to find a proper mate: emission of pheromones, light, sounds and vibrations, development of an attractive coloration pattern, amongst others (of which we talked widely in this post about insects’ communication).

Once they get a mate, courtship usually takes place; however, only successful courtships end in copulation. Courtship behavior and strategies include the performance of nuptial dances, gifts (i. e. food, as occurs in some scorpionflies (Mecoptera)) or the formation of swarms (nuptial flights, as in Hymenoptera), amongst others. In some cases, females will not mate with the male if he does not possess a wide territory or a suitable food source.

In the following video, we can enjoy the honeybee nuptial flight:

Fertilization

The fertilization or syngamy is the process through which the gametes fuse to form the embryo. This process takes place both in dioecious and hermaphrodite organisms.

  • Internal fertilization

Following with the dioecious organisms, the most frequent mechanism among “modern” insects to guarantee gametes meeting is mating (internal fertilization). When mating, males usually transmit his gametes (spermatozoa) directly to the female body, inside which male gametes meet with the female ones (ovules).

Grasshoppers of the species Romalea microptera from the United States, mating. Picture property of http://www.birdphotos.com, CC 3.0.
  • External fertilization

In some insects and related groups, fertilization does not need a direct contact of male and female sexual organs (external fertilization). In this case, males produce a spermatophore, a packet or capsule containing sperm, manufactured by the accessory glands of the male reproductive system; it is usually covered by a lipoprotein film that prevents it from dehydration. Usually, the spermatophore is considered an intermediate step between aquatic and terrestrial reproduction.

Spermatophore is produced by hexapod related groups, such as Myriapoda (millipedes, centipedes); also, by basal hexapods, like Collembola, Diplura and Protura; basal insects, such as Archaeognatha and Zygentoma (bristletails and silverfishes); and some groups of “modern” insects, like Orthoptera, Psocoptera, Coleoptera, Neuroptera, Mecoptera and some Hymenoptera. Sometimes, the male produces a spermatophore and leaves it over a surface, waiting the female to take it (as in Collembola); in other groups, the male offers it directly to the female as a nuptial gift, or leads the female where it has been deposited (Zygentoma and Archaeognatha).

Sminthurus viridis (Collembola); behind, the spermatophore. Modified picture; original picture property of Gilles San Martin on Flickr, CC 2.0.
Orthoptera (female) grabbing the spermatophore laid by a male. Modified picture; original picture property of Sandrine Rouja on Flickr, CC 2.0.

Internal fertilization is considered an evolutive adaptation to terrestrial life. However, there are still some insects that carry on internal reproduction that conserve the genetical information to produce a spermatophore; in these cases, the male introduces the spermatophore inside the female’s body, which serves to her as an additional nutritional source for her eggs.

2. Parthenogenesis

Parthenogenesis is the generation of offspring through unfertilized eggs. Usually, parthenogenesis is classified among asexual reproductive strategies; however, it is more like a special type of sexual reproduction since female gametes generated by meiosis are involved in the process.

Parthenogenesis can be:

  • Accidental: occasionally, an unfertilized egg gives birth to a larva; i. e. Bombyx mori (silkworm butterfly).
  • Facultative: while some eggs are fertilized, others not.
  • Obligated: eggs only develop if they are unfertilized. It occurs in many species with alternant parthenogenetic and amphygonic generations.
Silkworm butterfly (Bombyx mori). Occasionally, some of its unfertilized eggs give birth to a larva. Picture property of Nikita on Flickr, CC 2.0.

Moreover, depending on the chromosomic number of the ovule, parthenogenesis can be:

  • Haploid (n) or arrhenotoky: unfertilized eggs (n) generate males and fertilized eggs (2n), females. It takes place in bees and other Hymenoptera, in some Coleoptera and Zygentoma, and it is always facultative. Sex determination at birth is a key process in the evolutive history of colonial structures in social insects.
In honeybees, fertilized eggs give birth to females (workers or queen depending on the diet they are given during the larval stages) and unfertilized eggs, to males. Pictures by Alex Wild and figure by Ashley Mortensen (web of the University of Florida).

 

  • Diploid (2n) or thelytoky: unfertilized eggs (2n) always give birth to females with the same genetic number as the progenitor female (clones). It takes place in aphids (Aphididae, Hemiptera), cockroaches, scale insects (Coccoidea, Hemiptera) and in some curculionid beetles; it tends to be an obligated parthenogensis. This type of parthenogenesis has the potentiality to generate hundreds of descendants in a short lapse as a detriment to the genetical variability. In aphids, parthenogenetic generations alternated with amphigonic generations allow them to undergo demographical explosions at specific times.
Aphis nerii (aphids). Picture property of Andrew C, CC 2.0.

Sometimes, parthenogenesis occurs in immature stages (larval or pupal). In the pedogensis or paedogensis, immature forms can generate offspring by parthenogenesis; it takes place in gall midges (Diptera) and in a species of beetle, Macromalthus debilis, amongst others. It must not be confused with neoteny, in which a larva develops traits and reproductive structures typical of an adult (as occurs in some scale bugs).

Asexual reproduction

In the asexual reproduction, the generation of offspring occurs without the participation of any type of gamete.

It is very uncommon in insects, being represented only by a single and odd strategy called polyembryony. Polyembryony is the phenomenon of two or more embryos developing from a single fertilized egg by scission. Even though it takes place an initial fertilization, offspring is generated asexually. It occurs just in a few species of gall midges and in a few chalcidid hymenopterans (parasitoids), through which they undergo population explosions.

Offspring generation

There exist different strategies through which insects generate their offspring:

Oviparity

Oviparous insects lay eggs. It is the most common reproductive strategy.

Praying mantis lay or ootheca (left; picture property of Scot Nelson on Flickr, CC 2.0) and lay of the butterfly Pieris brassicae (right; picture property of Walter Baxter, CC 2.0).

Ovoviviparity

Fertilized eggs are incubated inside the reproductive ducts of the female. It happens in some cockroaches, aphids, scale bugs and flies (Muscidae, Calliphoridae and Tachinidae), in some beetles and trips (Thysanoptera). The eggs hatch immediately before or after being laid.

Viviparity

Females give birth to larvae. There exist different types of viviparity in insects:

  • Pseudoplacental viviparity: female develops eggs containing little or no yolk, so she must nourish them through a placental-like tissue. It occurs in many aphids and Dermaptera, in some Psocoptera and in Polyctenidae (Hemiptera).

In this video of Neil Bromhall, we can see a group of aphids giving birth:

  • Hemocelous viviparity: embryos develop freely inside the female’s hemolymph (the internal liquid of insects, similar to blood), from which they obtain nutrients by osmosis. It occurs only in Strepsiptera and in gall midges. In some gall midges, larvae feed on their progenitor, which is also a larva (extreme case of larval pedogenesis).
  • Adenotrophic viviparity: larvae are underdeveloped, so they must keep feeding on liquids excreted by accessory glands located on females’ reproductive ducts (‘mammary glands’). Once they reach the optimal size, larvae pupate immediately after being laid. This type of viviparity takes place in flies of the families Glossinidae (tsetse fly), Hippoboscidae (horse or dove flies), Nycteribidae and Streblidae (bat flies).

In this video of Geoffrey M. Attardo (AAAS/Science), we can see a tsetse fly giving birth to its larva:

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Who said that the (a)sexual life of insects was simple? Do you know any curious data? Leave your comments below!

References

Main picture property of Irene Lobato Vila (the owner of this post).

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The killer bee: the case that shook up America

In the ‘60s, American media picked up a case that shook up countries all over the world: hybridization of two types of honeybee gave rise to an aggressive, unstoppable and lethal new organism. The killer bee had arrived.

This little insect appeared on the front cover of numerous famous magazines and newspapers during a long time and it even assumed the main role in some terror films (such as “The Swarm”, 1978). However, when did fiction surpass reality? What’s true in this story? Keep reading to get the answers.

The origin of killer bees

The most famous honeybees belong to the species Apis mellifera, which is widely spread all over the world. All its subspecies are native to Europe, Africa and Asia, although some of them (specially the European ones) have been imported to different countries worldwide due to their value for crop pollination and honey production.

You can read the post ‘Family life of bees and beekeeping‘ to know more about this topic.

apiario-abejas
The breeding of honeybees (beekeeping or apiculture) is a widespread practice all over the world. In America, European honeybees were imported for this purpose. Author: Emma Jane Hogbin Westby, CC on Flickr.

The origin of killer bees underlies on the subspecies A. mellifera scutellata or African honeybee, native to Sub-Saharan Africa and southeast of Africa. Unlike European honeybees, these are very aggressive. In America, these bees hybridized with imported European or Western honeybees, giving rise to hybrid bees known as Africanised bees. These hybrids, along with native African honeybees and the descendants they gave birth in America, were colloquially named as killer bees.

native-range_killer-bee
Native range of distribution of the African honeybee. Source: UF/IFAS, University of Florida. Original illustration property of Jane Medley, University of Florida.

How and why did they spread over America? 

In the ’50, the importation of European honeybees to America was a frequent practise. However, while beekeeping had good results in the USA, it didn’t seem to work in South America because honeybees from Europe didn’t adapted well to tropical climate. Thus, in 1956, the Brazilian scientist Warwick Kerr suggested to import African honeybees to Brazil instead of the European ones in an effort to increase honey production. Then, the unique main problem he needed to solve was the aggressive nature of this subspecies. The main objective of Dr. Kerr was to obtain a docile variety of bees that was also productive in tropical climates by artificial selection and cross-breeding of the African honey bee (A. m. scutellata) with various European honeybees.

The project would had been a success if it weren’t for the fact that some swarms accidentally escaped quarantine. The experimental bees rapidly formed new colonies and began to hybridize with both wild and domestic European honeybees, giving rise to the Africanised honeybees which were more aggressive and less productive than Dr. Kerr expected.

These bees are currently located in almost all over the American continent. In the USA, they didn’t spread further north due to their tropical origins, so their range of distribution in North America is limited to the southern states of the USA.

killer-bee_spreading
The spread of the killer bee over America was fast, even reaching the southern states of the USA in a few years since they escaped. Source of the original illustration: Harvard University Press (86).

Analysing the killer bee

Morphology

At the beginning, beekeepers faced the difficult to differentiate the African honeybees from the European ones, because they look quite similar at first glance. However, exhaustive studies allowed to confirm the existence of, at least, two differences between them: both African and Africanised honeybees are slightly smaller (about 10%) and darker than the European ones. Bad news is that it’s still necessary to use morphometric analysis to differentiate them properly, especially when African genes are more diluted.

apis_mellifera_scutellata-apis_mellifera_mellifera
To the left, Apis mellifera scutellata or African honeybee; to the right, Apis mellifera mellifera or one of the European subspecies of honeybees. Author: Scott Bauer, USDA Agricultural Research Service, United States. Public domain.

Behaviour

African honeybees show some behavioural traits that make them potentially more dangerous than their European relatives:

  1. They are more aggressive. It’s suggested that being exposed to different environmental pressures in their native habitats could be the main cause of the difference of aggressiveness between these honeybee subspecies: traditionally in Europe, beekeepers have selected less aggressive and manageable varieties, while in Africa it’s more usual to collect wild honeycombs (a practice colloquially known as ‘honey hunting’). Both ‘honey hunting’ and a major presence of natural enemies could have been lead to the selection of African varieties’ heightened defensiveness compared to that of European subspecies.
  1. They accomplish massive attacks. Unlike European honeybees, which attack in groups of 10-20 individuals, African honeybees can do it in groups of 100-1000 individuals. There exist evidences of the emission of pheromones that would incite other bees to massively join the attack. Moreover, the defended area around the nest is greater and the level of stimulus needed to trigger an attack is lower than in the European honeybees.

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bees_mackley_hospital
Massive attacks accomplished by African and Africanised bees are infrequent, but stunning. In the image above, the farmer Lamar LaCaze was attacked by a swarm of 70.000 Africanised honeybees that had made their home in an old water heater (Source: Inside Edition). In the image below, the case of the climber Robert Mackley, who was attacked during about 3 hours while performing an ascension in Arizona; he was stung an estimated 1500 times (Source: Phoenix New Times; author of the picture:: Robert Mackley).
  1. They swarm frequently. Honeybee colonies usually swarm 1 to 3 times a year (i.e. when the colony gets too large and resources are abundant, a new queen is reared and the hive splits), while African honeybee hives could split up to 10 times a year, even more if they feel threatened.
eixam_abella-assassina
Swarm of African honeybees. Author: Michael K. O’Malley, University of Florida.
  1. Selection of nesting site. Because African honey bees swarm more often, fewer individuals are involved in each swarm, so they do not require a large cavity to build a nest. They are also less selective than their European relatives, so they can be found inside pipes, trash cans, building cracks, holes in the ground, etc.
Niu-abella_assassina
A colony of African honeybees inside a bucket. Author: Michael K. O’Malley, University of Florida.
africanized_honey_bee_hive
Nest of Africanized honeybees in a building ceiling. Author: Ktr101, CC.
  1. Nest usurpation (or colony takeover). This is probably the most curious behavioural trait of African honeybees. First of all, a small African swarm containing a queen lands on a European colony. As time passes, the worker bees in the African swarm begin to exchange food and pheromones with the European workers from the colony. This gradually ensures the adoption of the African bees into the European colony. Somewhere during this process, the European queen disappears (probably killed by the African bees) and the African queen is introduced into the colony. By this process, European bees are eventually substituted by African bees and their hybrid descendants.

Biology

Even though reproductive biology and development are very similar among honeybee races, African honeybees show some biological traits that lend them adaptive advantages with respect the European ones:

  1. Greater production of drones (male bees) by parthenogenesis. African colonies produce proportionally more male bees than European honeybees, which gather during the nuptial flight forming cloud of hundreds of individuals. So, the probability that a European queen mates with an African drone increases, and thus the probability to perpetuate African genes.
  1. Fast development. African colonies grow and spread faster than the European ones.
  1. Greater resistance to pathogens and parasites. For example, to Varroa destructor, to the small hive beetle Aethina tumida or even to bacteria of the genus Paenabacilis, which have finished with a lot of European honeybee populations in America.
varroa_destructor_on_a_bee_nymph_5048094767-min
Varroa destructor on a bee nymph. Author: Gilles San Martin, CC.

The way all these traits express on hybrid bees varies depending on the proportion of African and European genes they present, which depends at the same time on the distance to the original spreading focus. So, the hybrid bees from the USA tend to be genetically closer to European honeybees and thus are less aggressive than the Africanised honeybees from other parts of America.

Are they a public health concern?

The number of stings received by their victims (causing anaphylactic reactions even in non-allergic people), the aggressiveness of their attacks, their versatility to select a nesting site (favouring their presence in urban areas) and their sensibility against any vibration or noise, are reasons enough to consider both African and Africanised honeybees a public health concern.

However, the most stunning cases of massive attacks are not as frequent as we could think. So, the real concern falls to risk groups (such as children, elderly, sick or disabled people) and to domestic animals, which would have more difficult to scape an attack.

Despite the potential risk they pose, the situation is currently well managed because a great number of exhaustive studies have allowed to carry out different measures to control their populations (and even to take advantage of them). For many years, beekeepers have been breeding African and Africanised bees to produce honey and pollinize crops in Centre and South America, becoming one of the most important honey producers worldwide. To that effect, they apply special management measures, such as letting only one colony to develop inside the hive.

warning_killer-bee-area
Installing alert signs minimizes the risk that people come in contact with colonies of bees. Along with the premature detection of individuals and the elimination of potential nesting sites, this action is a part of the set of preventive measures to prevent the progression of their populations and the interaction of people with these organisms. Source of the picture: ALTHEA PETERSON/Tulsa World.

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Despite ‘killer bees’ could be dangerous depending on the situation, they must not be considered a great concern due to the great amount of information there exists about their populations and also about measures to control them. However, this case serves as an example of how the impact of humans on ecosystems and the introduction of foreign species can play a dirty trick on native habitats…

REFERENCES

  • Calderón, R. A., Van Veen, J. W., Sommeijer, M. J., & Sanchez, L. A. (2010). Reproductive biology of Varroa destructor in Africanized honey bees (Apis mellifera). Experimental and Applied Acarology, 50(4): 281-297.
  • Ellis J., Ellis A. (2012). Apis mellifera scutellata Lepeletier (Insecta: Hymenoptera: Apidae). Entomology and Nematology Department, University of Florida, USA [en linia].
  • Evans, H. E. (1985). “Killer” Bees, The Pleasures of Entomology: Portraits of Insects and the People Who Study Them. Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. Pp 83-91.
  • Ferreira Jr, R. S., Almeida, R. A. M. D. B., Barraviera, S. R. C. S., & Barraviera, B. (2012). Historical perspective and human consequences of Africanized bee stings in the Americas. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B, 15(2): 97-108.
  • França, F. O. S., Benvenuti, L. A., Fan, H. W., Dos Santos, D. R., Hain, S. H., Picchi-Martins, F. R., Cardoso J. L., Kamiguti A. S., Theakston, R. D. & Warrell, D. A. (1994). Severe and fatal mass attacks by ‘killer’bees (Africanized honey bees—Apis mellifera scutellata) in Brazil: clinicopathological studies with measurement of serum venom concentrations. QJM, 87(5): 269-282.
  • Neumann, P., & Härtel, S. (2004). Removal of small hive beetle (Aethina tumida) eggs and larvae by African honeybee colonies (Apis mellifera scutellata). Apidologie, 35(1): 31-36.
  • O’Malley, M.K., Ellis, J. D., Zettel Nalen, C. M. & Herrera P. (2013). Differences Between European and African Honey Bees. EDIS.
  • Winston, ML. (1992). Killer Bees: The Africanized honey bee in the Americas. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachutes, USA. 176 pp.

Main photo property of Gustavo Mazzarollo (c)/Alamy Stock Photo.

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Immaculate Conception… in reptiles and insects

December’s bank holidays and Christmas’s holidays have in common in that the Immaculate Conception is celebrated in both. The biological phenomenon in which a female animal reproduces without mating with a male is called parthenogenesis and, even if there isn’t any proof that this could happen to human beings, virginal birth is a widely distributed thing throughout the animal kingdom. In this entry we’ll see how this incredible phenomenon happens and some species in which it appears.

WHAT IS PARTHENOGENESIS?

Parthenogenesis is a type of asexual reproduction in which the offspring comes from a non-fertilized ovum. Without fertilization (union of the oocyte’s and the sperm’s genetic material) the offspring won’t have any part of the father’s DNA (if there is a father). The resulting babies will be genetic copies (clones) of their mother.

532px-Haploid,_diploid_,triploid_and_tetraploidDuring fertilization, when the ovum and the sperm fuse together (both haploid cells, with just one copy of chromosomes, n chromosomes) a new individual is formed with a unique genetic combination, with DNA from its father and its mother (diploid, with two copies of each chromosome, 2n chromosomes in each cell). Triploid (3n) or tetraploid (4n) individuals only appear in asexual hybrid species, and most cases are non-viable. Images by Ehamberg.

In parthenogenetic animals, the lack of paternal genetic material must be compensated because in many species haploid foetuses are non-viable. In these species diploidy (2n chromosomes) is usually re-established through a process called automixis. Yet in some species, haploid individuals with parthenogenetic origins are viable and have no problems in surviving.

It is impossible to pose a general example for asexual reproduction, as it is widely distributed through very different animal groups and there are many cases with many differences among them. Bellow, we’ll present you some examples of different strategies used by animals to reproduce asexually.

HAPLODIPLOIDY IN BEES AND WASPS

Haplodiploidy is a phenomenon that appears in two insect orders, hymenopterans (bees, ants and wasps) and thysanopterans (thrips or stormbugs). In this sexual determination system, if the ovum is fertilized it will develop into a female while, if it isn’t fertilized a haploid male will be born.

Apis_Mellifera_Carnica_Queen_Bee_in_the_hiveColony of Carniolan honey bees (Apis mellifera carnica), a subspecies of hony bee from Eastern Europe. Photo by Levi Asay.

In the honey bee, when the queen bee mates with a drone (male bee), all the diploid individuals (2n) will became females, with DNA combined from the queen and the drone. By contrast, drones are born by parthenogenesis, in which an egg from the queen will develop into a haploid drone (n). This means that the individuals in a bee colony, descendants from the same queen, are much more closely related to each other than regular siblings (drones have 100% of their mother’s DNA). It is believed that this helped to the development of eusocial behaviours in different hymenopteran groups.

CYCLIC PARTHENOGENESIS

This kind of parthenogenesis is found in different invertebrate groups that can alternate between asexual and sexual reproduction during its life cycle depending on the environmental conditions.

1471-2164-14-412-1-lDiagram about the life cycle of a rotifer, in which parthenogenetic asexual reproduction during good environmental conditions is alternated with sexual reproductions with a haploid male during adverse conditions. Image extracted from Hanson et al. 2013.

Some invertebrate groups like aphids, present asexual parthenogenic reproduction from spring until early autumn, when conditions are favourable. During this stage in many populations we find only females that give birth to more females.

Fast motion video in which we can see how the aphids take advantage during good weather conditions to increase fast and efficiently the number of individuals asexually. Video by Neil Bromhall.

When autumn approaches, parthenogenetic females start giving birth to sexual males and females. Both sexes are born by parthenogenesis and have 100% of their mother’s DNA. Sexual winged individuals then disperse to avoid mating with their own siblings. These will mate and females will lay resistant eggs that will survive winter. In spring these eggs will hatch and give rise to a new generation of parthenogenetic females that will start the cycle again.

TRUE PARTHENOGENESIS IN SQUAMATES

The only vertebrates that show true parthenogenesis are the squamates, with about 50 lizard species and one snake being obligate parthenotes. These are unisexual species, all individuals being females that reproduce asexually without the intervention of any male. Also, there are many other species that, even if they usually reproduce sexually, are also able to reproduce asexually when there are no males available (facultative parthenogenesis).

DesertGrasslandWhiptailLizard_AspidoscelisUniparensDesert grassland whiptail lizard (Cnemidophorus uniparens) which, as its scientific name implies, is a parthenogenic species in which all specimens are female. Photo by Ltshears.

There are isolated cases of captive female sharks, snakes and Komodo dragons that have reproduced without fertilization or mating with a male. Yet, this is known as accidental parthenogenesis, because the high mortality of the offspring (surviving between 1/100.000 and 1/million) shows that it is probably due to a failure of the organism, more than an adaptive phenomenon.

ParthkomodoBaby Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis) born by accidental parthenogenesis at Chester Zoo. Photo by Neil.

Females from the true parthenogenetic species produce haploid eggs (with n chromosomes) which eventually become diploid (2n chromosomes) by two consecutive division cycles during meiosis (automixis). In species with facultative parthenogenesis, diploidy is achieved by the fusion of the ovum with a haploid polar body that forms during meiosis.

Oogenesis-polar-body-diagramScheme of the formation of polar bodies during oogenesis, which may help parthenogenetic reptiles to regain their diploidy. Scheme by Studentreader.

True parthenogenesis is especially well-known in the Brahminy blind snake (Ramphotyphlops brahminus) and many species of lizards. In these species females generate clones of themselves. Parthenogenetic lizard species (like in amphibians) probably originated from a hybridization event between two sexual species. Many whiptail lizards (genera Cnemidophorus/Aspidoscelis) present unisexual species in which no males exist, from a hybridation process.

Ramphotyphlops_braminus_in_Timor-LesteBrahminy blind snake (Ramphotyphlops braminus), the only known unisexual ophidian, in which all specimens found to date are females. Photo taken from Kaiser et al. 2011.

The species Cnemidophorus uniparens is a parthenogenic unisexual species, which appeared asa result of the hybridization between C. inornatus and C. burti. The resulting hybrid reproduced again with C. inornatus, forming the triploid (3n) parthenote C. uniparens. The presence of triploid, tetraploid, etc. genomes is a common phenomenon between unisexual reptiles, as its hybrid origins sometimes prevents the mixing of genomes. Also, a greater chromosomal variability compensates the lack of genetic recombination.

Despite being unisexual, sexual behaviours have been observed in this species similar to bisexual species. In C. uniparens there are documented sexual behaviours in which one female takes the role of a male and “mounts” another female contacting their cloacae. It is known that mounted females increase their egg production after this fake copula. It is believed that from one year to the other females shift their roles of mounting or being mounted, varying from year to year the number of eggs laid.

Cnemidophorus-ThreeSpeciesThree species of whiptail lizards. The middle one, Cnemidophorus neomexicanus is an unisexual parthenogenic species, originated from the hybridization of two bisexual species, C. inornatus (left) and C. tigris (right). Photo by Alistair J. Cullum.

Even if they are true parthenogenetic species, many of these squamates keep their ability to add new DNA to their offspring. This is due to the fact that if there’s no genetic recombination by the fusion of the ovum and the spermatozoon, there’s a high risk of accumulating genetic mutations detrimental for the species. Yet parthenogenesis allows these species to quickly colonize new habitats, because it is not necessary for two individuals to find each other to procreate, and 100% of the population is able to reproduce.

As you can see, there is a great number of animals that don’t need males nor sex to reproduce. The existence of a similar process in human beings is pretty much improbable (no to say impossible). Besides, if 2000 years ago a woman would have given birth to a baby without fertilization, probably this would have been a girl, because it wouldn’t have been able to acquire the Y chromosome from anywhere. Yet, this doesn’t mean we cannot enjoy the upcoming holidays. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone!

REFERENCES

The following sources have been used during the elaboration of this entry:

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Tardigrades: animals with superpowers

The smallest bears in the world have almost superhero abilities. Actually, they are not bears: water bears is the popular name of tardigrades. They are virtually indestructible invertebrates: they can survive decades without water or food, to extreme temperatures and they have even survived into outer space. Meet the animal that seems to come from another planet and learn to observe them in your home if you have a microscope.

WHAT IS A TARDIGRADE?

Oso de agua (Macrobiotus sapiens) en musgo. Foto coloreada tomada con microscopio electrónico de barrido (SEM): Foto de Nicole Ottawa & Oliver Meckes
Water bear (Macrobiotus sapiens) in moss. Colored photo taken with a scanning electron microscope (SEM). Photo by Nicole Ottawa & Oliver Meckes

Tardigrades or water bears, are a group of invertebrates 0.05-1.5 mm long that preferably live in damp places. They are especially abundant in the film of moisture covering mosses and ferns, although there are oceanic and freshwater species, so we can consider they live anywhere in the world. Even a few meters away from you, in the gap between tile and tile. In one gram of moss they have find up to 22,000 individuals. They are found in Antarctica under layers of 5 meters of ice, in warm deserts, hot springs, in mountains 6,000 meters high and abyssal ocean depths: they are  extremophiles. It is estimated that over 1,000 species exist.

MORPHOLOGY

Its popular name refers to their appearance, and the scientific name to their slow movements. Their bodies are divided into five segments: cephalic, with its tube-shaped mouth (proboscis) with two internal stilettos and sometimes simple eyes (ommatidia) and sensory hairs, and the remaining 4 segment with a pair of legs per segment. Each leg has claws for anchoring to the ground.

Vista ventral de un tardígrado donde seobservan los cinco segmentos del cuerpo. Foto de Eye Of Science/Photo LIbrary
Bottom view of a Tardigrade where the five segments of the body are observed. Colored photo taken with a scanning electron microscope (SEM). Photo by Eye Of Science/Science Photo Library
Tardigrade. Coloured scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of a freshwater tardigrade or water bear (Echiniscus sp.). Tardigrades, are tiny invertebrates that live in coastal waters and freshwater habitats, as well as semi-aquatic terrestrial habitats like damp moss. They require water to obtain oxygen by gas exchange. In dry conditions, they can enter a cryptobiotic tun (or barrel) state of dessication to survive. Tardigrades feed on plant and animal cells and are found throughout the world, from the tropics to the cold polar waters.
Tardigrade (Echiniscus sp.) In which you can see the claws. Colored photo taken with a scanning electron microscope (SEM). Photo de Eye Of Science/Science Photo Library

Look at this video of Craig Smith to see tardigrade’s movements in more detail:

FEEDING

With its mouth stilettos, tardigrades perforate plants and absorbe the products of photosynthesis, but they can also feed absorbing the cellular content of other microscopic organisms such as bacteria, algae, rotifers, nematodes… Some are predators too and can eat whole microorganisms.

Their digestive system is basically the mouth and a pharynx with powerful muscles to make sucking motions that opens directly into the intestine and anus. Some species defecate only when they shed.

Detalle de la boca de un tardígrado. Foto de
Detail of the mouth of a tardigrade. Colored image of scanning electron microscope (SEM). Photo by Eye Of Science/Science Photo Library

INTERNAL ANATOMY

They have no circulatory or respiratory system: gas exchange is made directly by the body surface. They are covered by a rigid cuticle which can be of different colors and is shed as they grow. With each moult, they lose oral stilettos, to be segregated again. They are eutelic animals: to grow they only increase the size of their cells, not their number, that remains constant throughout life

REPRODUCTION

Tardigrades generally have separate sexes (are dioecious) and reproduce by eggs (are oviparous), but there are also hermaphrodites and parthenogenetic species (females reproduce without being fertilized by any male). Fertilization is external and development is direct: they don’t have larval stages.

tardigrade egg, ou tardigrad
Tardigrade egg. Colored image of scanning electron microscope (SEM). Photo by Eye of Science/Science Photo Library

TARDIGRADE’S RECORDS

The tardigrades are incredibly resilient animals that have survived the following conditions:

  • Dehydration: they can survive for 30 years under laboratory conditions without a single drop of water. Some sources claim that resist up to 120 years or have been found in ice 2000 years old and have been able to revive, although it is likely to be an exaggeration.
  • Extreme temperature: if you boil one tardigrade survives. If you put it to temperatures near the absolute zero (-273ºC), survives. Their survival rate ranges from -270ºC to 150ºC.
  • Extreme pressure: they are capable of supporting from vacuum to 6,000 atmospheres, ie 6 times the pressure in the deepest point on Earth, the Mariana Trench (11,000 meters deep).
  • Extreme radiation: tardigrades can withstand bombardment of radiation at a dose 1000 times the lethal to a human.
  • Toxic substances: if they are immersed in ether or pure alcohol, survive.
  • Outer space: tardigrades are the only animals that have survived into space without any protection. In 2007 the ESA (European Space Agency) within the TARDIS project (Tardigrades In Space) left tardigrades (Richtersius coronifer and Milnesium tardigradum) for 12 days on the surface of the Foton-M3 spacecraft and they survived the space travel. In 2011 NASA did the same placing them in the outside of the space shuttle Endeavour and the results were corroborated. They survived vacuum, cosmic rays and ultraviolet radiation 1,000 times higher than that of the Earth’s surface. The project Biokis (2011) of the Italian Space Agency (ASI) studied the impact of these trips at the molecular level.

HOW DO THEY DO THAT?

The tardigrades are able to withstand such extreme conditions because they enter cryptobiosis status when conditions are unfavorable. It is an extreme state of anabiosis (decreased metabolism). According to the conditions they endure, the cryptobiosis is classified as:

  • Anhydrobiosis: in case of environmental dehydration, they enter a “barrel status” because adopt barrel shaping to reduce its surface and wrap in a layer of wax to prevent water loss through transpiration. To prevent cell death they synthesize trehalose, a sugar substitute for water, so body structure and cell membranes remain intact. They reduce the water content of their body to just 1% and then stop their metabolism almost completely (0.01% below normal).

    Tardígrado deshidratado. Foto de Photo Science Library
    Tardigrade dehydrated. Photo by Photo Science Library
  • Cryobiosis: in low temperatures, the water of living beings crystallizes, it breaks the structure of cells and the living being die. Tardigrades use proteins to suddenly freeze water cells as small crystals, so they can avoid breakage.
  • Osmobiosis: it occurs in case of increase of the salt concentration of the environment.
  • Anoxybiosis: in the absence of oxygen, they enter a state of inactivity in which leave their body fully stretched, so they need water to stay perky.

Referring to exposures to radiation, which would destroy the DNA, it has been observed that tardigrades are able to repair the damaged genetic material.

These techniques have already been imitated in fields such as medicine, preserving rat hearts to “revive” them later, and open other fields of living tissue preservation and transplantation. They also open new fields in space exploration for extraterrestrial life (Astrobiology) and even in the human exploration of space to withstand long interplanetary travel, ideas for now, closer to science fiction than reality.

ARE THEY ALIENS?

The sparse fossil record, the unclear evolutionary relatedness and great resistance, led to hypothesis speculating with the possibility that tardigrades have come from outer space. It is not a crazy idea, but highly unlikely. Panspermia is the hypothesis that life, or rather, complex organic molecules, did not originate on Earth, but travelled within meteorites in the early Solar System. Indeed, amino acids (essential molecules for life) have been found in meteorites composition, so panspermia is a hypothesis that can not be ruled out yet.

Foto de Eye Of Science/Photolife Library
Photo by Eye Of Science/Photolife Library

But it is not the case of tardigrades: their DNA is the same as the rest of terrestrial life forms and recent phylogenetic studies relate them to onychophorans (worm-like animals), aschelminthes and arthropods. What is fascinating is that is the animal with more foreign DNA: up to 16% of its genome belongs to fungi, bacteria or archaea, obtained by a process called horizontal gene transfer. The presence of foreign genes in other animal species is usually not more than 1%. Could be this fact what has enabled them to develop this great resistance?

DO YOU WANT TO SEARCH TARDIGRADES BY YOURSELF AND OBSERVE THEM IN ACTION?

Being so common and potentially livIng almost anywhere, if you have a simple microscope,  you can search and view living tardigrades by yourself:

    • Grab a piece of moss of a rock or wall, it is better if it is a little dry.
    • Let it dry in the sun and clean it of dirt and other large debris.
    • Put it upside down in a transparent container (such as a petri dish),  soak it with water and wait a few hours.
    • Remove moss and look for tardigrades in the water container (put it on a black background for easier viewing). If lucky, with a magnifying glass you’ll see them moving.
    • Take them with a pipette or dropper, place them on the slide and enjoy! You could see things like this:

REFERENCES

MIREIA QUEROL ALL YOU NEED IS BIOLOGY