Assortative mating (prezygotic isolation) and reduced hybrid fitness (postzygotic isolation) are typically invoked to explain the stability of hybrid zones. In the tension zone model, these factors work in opposition to migration, which promotes genetic homogeneity. Many marine animals migrate over long distances through a planktonic larval stage. Therefore, strong reproductive isolation is needed to maintain stable marine hybrid zones. However, surprisingly little is known about mating preferences and hybrid fitness in marine organisms. Smooth-shelled mussels (Mytilus spp.) form a well-known species complex, with hybridization over extensive areas such as the contact zone of M. edulis and M. galloprovincialis around European Atlantic coasts. This paper reports direct experimental evidence of assortative fertilization, hybrid larval inviability, and early heterosis for growth rate in M. edulis and M. galloprovincialis. Four crosses between pure M. edulis and M. galloprovincialis were analyzed with a new polymerase-chain-reaction-based diagnostic marker. Gamete competition between taxa was allowed in two out of the four crosses. Genotype frequencies observed at an early stage (36 h after fertilization) unambiguously revealed assortative fertilization when gamete competition was allowed. A significant reduction in hybrid viability was subsequently observed during the larval stage. At the same stage an antagonistic effect, heterosis, was observed on growth rate. However, even if heterosis is observed in the F1, it is expected to vanish in subsequent hybrid generations. Although specialization for different habitats and asynchronous spawning have been mentioned as factors contributing to the maintenance of the blue mussel hybrid zone in Europe, we argue that assortative fertilization and reduced hybrid fitness are important factors that also contribute to the stabilization of this zone. These results emphasize that multiple factors may act concomitantly in a barrier to gene flow, especially in complex life cycles. Furthermore, they show that assortative mating through gamete preference, as already demonstrated for sea urchins, may play a role in speciation processes taking place in the sea.
Corresponding Editor: R. Burton