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Open Access Research article

Intraspecific divergence in sperm morphology of the green sea urchin, Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis: implications for selection in broadcast spawners

Mollie K Manier12* and Stephen R Palumbi1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biological Sciences, Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University, Pacific Grove, CA, USA

2 Current address: Department of Biology, 110 Life Sciences Complex, Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY 13244, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:283  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-283

Published: 13 October 2008



Sperm morphology can be highly variable among species, but less is known about patterns of population differentiation within species. Most studies of sperm morphometric variation are done in species with internal fertilization, where sexual selection can be mediated by complex mating behavior and the environment of the female reproductive tract. Far less is known about patterns of sperm evolution in broadcast spawners, where reproductive dynamics are largely carried out at the gametic level. We investigated variation in sperm morphology of a broadcast spawner, the green sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis), within and among spawnings of an individual, among individuals within a population, and among populations. We also examined population-level variation between two reproductive seasons for one population. We then compared among-population quantitative genetic divergence (QST) for sperm characters to divergence at neutral microsatellite markers (FST).


All sperm traits except total length showed strong patterns of high diversity among populations, as did overall sperm morphology quantified using multivariate analysis. We also found significant differences in almost all traits among individuals in all populations. Head length, axoneme length, and total length had high within-male repeatability across multiple spawnings. Only sperm head width had significant within-population variation across two reproductive seasons. We found signatures of directional selection on head length and head width, with strong selection possibly acting on head length between the Pacific and West Atlantic populations. We also discuss the strengths and limitations of the QST-FST comparison.


Sperm morphology in S. droebachiensis is highly variable, both among populations and among individuals within populations, and has low variation within an individual across multiple spawnings. Selective pressures acting among populations may differ from those acting within, with directional selection implicated in driving divergence among populations and balancing selection as a possible mechanism for producing variability among males. Sexual selection in broadcast spawners may be mediated by different processes from those acting on internal fertilizers. Selective divergence in sperm head length among populations is associated with ecological differences among populations that may play a large role in mediating sexual selection in this broadcast spawner.