In broadcast-spawning marine organisms, chronic sperm limitation should select for traits that improve chances of sperm-egg contact. One mechanism may involve increasing the size of the physical or chemical target for sperm. However, models of fertilization kinetics predict that increasing egg size can reduce net zygote production due to an associated decline in fecundity. An alternate method for increasing physical target size is through addition of energetically inexpensive external structures, such as the jelly coats typical of eggs in species from several phyla. In selection experiments on eggs of the echinoid Dendraster excentricus, in which sperm was used as the agent of selection, eggs with larger overall targets were favored in fertilization. Actual shifts in target size following selection matched quantitative predictions of a model that assumed fertilization was proportional to target size. Jelly volume and ovum volume, two characters that contribute to target size, were correlated both within and among females. A cross-sectional analysis of selection partitioned the independent effects of these characters on fertilization success and showed that they experience similar direct selection pressures. Coupled with data on relative organic costs of the two materials, these results suggest that, under conditions where fertilization is limited by egg target size, selection should favor investment in low-cost accessory structures and may have a relatively weak effect on the evolution of ovum size.
Corresponding Editor: D. Wheeler