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Mating behaviour in the sea slug Elysia timida (Opisthobranchia, Sacoglossa): hypodermic injection, sperm transfer and balanced reciprocity

Author(s): Schmitt Valerie | Anthes Nils | Michiels Nico

Journal: Frontiers in Zoology
ISSN 1742-9994

Volume: 4;
Issue: 1;
Start page: 17;
Date: 2007;
Original page

Abstract Background In simultaneous hermaphrodites with copulation and internal fertilization it is often unclear whether reciprocal sperm exchange results from the unconditional willingness of both partners to donate and receive sperm, or whether it follows from a more controlled process such as conditional reciprocal sperm exchange, i.e. sperm trading. While in some sea slugs mating is assumed to be based on sperm trading, it seems to be unconditional in others. Here, we describe the unusual mating behaviour of Elysia timida, a small sacoglossan, focussing on indications for conditional reciprocity. Results E. timida shows an as yet unique combination of a long series of hypodermic transfers followed by a short phase with standard insemination into a female genital aperture. Hypodermic transfer takes place in the form of repeated small injections into the dorsal surface of the partner, interrupted by synchronised circling movements. In the final mating phase sperm is transferred into the female genital aperture in a short period. In both phases the two mating individuals show a high degree of transfer symmetry and synchrony. While total duration and number of transfers were balanced within pairs, they varied significantly between pairs. Furthermore, looking at individual hypodermic transfers within pairs, reciprocal transfers lasted longer than unilateral transfers. Final sperm transfers were always reciprocal except for two cases which also diverted from the usual pattern in ways that were suggestive of a conflict over reciprocity. Conclusion Our results suggest that individual mating decisions in E. timida depend on what the partner does, indicating conditional reciprocity. If hypodermic transfers also involve the transfer of sperm (which remains to be confirmed), this system represents an up to now unique transition stage between hypodermic and standard insemination, both of which are widespread in this group of sea slugs, but never have been observed to co-occur within the same species.
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