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Superfast evolution in sea stars

by UC Davis News posted on July 26, 2012 05:19PM GMT

How quickly can new species arise? In as little as 6,000 years, according to a study of Australian sea stars.

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The sea stars Cryptasterina hystera and C. pentagona are close relatives with very different ways of reproducing but difficult to tell apart. A new study shows the species separated just a few thousand years ago. (Jon Puritz/University of Hawaii at Manoa)

"That's unbelievably fast compared to most organisms," said Rick Grosberg, professor of evolution and ecology at UC Davis and coauthor on the paper published July 18 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Grosberg is interested in how new species arise in the ocean. On land, groups of plants and animals can be physically isolated by mountains or rivers and then diverge until they can no longer interbreed even if they meet again. But how does this isolation happen in the wide-open ocean?

Grosberg and colleagues studied two closely related "cushion stars," Cryptasterina pentagona and C. hystera, living on the Australian coast. The animals are identical in appearance but live in different regions: Hystera occurs on a few beaches and islands at the far southern end of the range of pentagona.

And their sex lives are very, very different. Pentagona has male and female individuals that release sperm and eggs into the water where they fertilize, grow into larvae and float around in the plankton for a few months before settling down and developing into adult sea stars.

Hystera are hermaphrodites that brood their young internally and give birth to miniature sea stars ready to grow to adulthood.

"It's as dramatic a difference in life history as in any group of organisms," Grosberg said.

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