BACKGROUND: Whether male and female gametes are produced by single or separate individuals shapes plant mating and hence patterns of genetic diversity among and within populations. Haploid-dominant plants ("bryophytes": liverworts, mosses and hornworts) can have unisexual (dioicous) or bisexual (monoicous) gametophytes, and today, 68% of liverwort species, 57% of moss species, and 40% of hornwort species are dioicous. The transitions between the two sexual systems and possible correlations with other traits have been studied in liverworts and mosses, but not hornworts. Here we use a phylogeny for 98 of the 200 species of hornworts, the sister group to vascular plants, representing roughly equal proportions of all monoicous and all dioicous species, to test whether transitions in sexual systems are predominantly from monoicy to dioicy as might be expected based on studies of mosses. We further investigate possible correlations between sexual system and spore size, antheridium number, ploidy level, and diversification rate, with character selection partly based on findings in mosses and liverworts.
RESULTS: Hornworts underwent numerous transitions between monoicy and dioicy. The transition rate from dioicy to monoicy was 2× higher than in the opposite direction, but monoicous groups have higher extinction rates; diversification rates do not correlate with sexual system. A correlation important in mosses, that between monoicy and polyploidy, apparently plays a small role: of 20 species with chromosome counts, only one is polyploid, the monoicous Anthoceros punctatus. A contingency test revealed that transitions to dioicy were more likely in species with small spores, supporting the hypothesis that small but numerous spores may be advantageous for dioicous species that depend on dense carpets of gametophytes for reproductive assurance. However, we found no evidence for increased antheridium-per-chamber numbers in dioicous species.
CONCLUSIONS: Sexual systems in hornworts are labile, and the higher number of extant monoicous species (60%) may be largely due to frequent transitions to monoicy.
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