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Hermaphrodites and their evolutionary significance

Did you know that clownfish, snails and starfish are hermaphrodites? Today we explain to you why hermaphrodite can be an evolutionary advantage.

Last update: October 24, 2020

Hermaphrodites are those that produce male and female germ cells. This phenomenon is common in most plants, but did you know that hermaphroditism also occurs in animals? Below we will show you some examples of why it can be an evolutionary advantage in the animal kingdom Hermaphrodite to be.

Reproductive systems

There are many different methods of reproduction in nature. These have changed over time, depending on the evolutionary advantage they can offer each species - whether plant, animal or fungus.

There are two general reproductive systems:

  • Separate sexes or dioceses. In this case there are both male and female living beings.
  • Hermaphroditism or hermaphroditism. The hermaphrodite is characterized by the fact that a living being has both male and female reproductive organs.

Advantages of being a hermaphrodite

The theory of gender assignment states that if the number of offspring in hermaphrodites is greater than in populations in which the sexes are separated, hermaphrodite is favored by natural selection.

A study by Journal of Evolutionary Biology animals have to move around in search of their mate in order for mating to occur. However, when an organism is stuck to a structure and cannot move, it is a challenge to find another living being to reproduce with.Corals and shells are examples of these types of organisms.

On the other hand, it is also difficult in those cases in which individuals are actively looking for a partner, as this is associated with a high expenditure of energy. These animals must therefore control their time and energy expenditure accordingly in order to find both food and a partner.

Although animals can find a partner while they are feeding, but when they only focus on finding a partner, nutrition takes a back seat.

Hermaphrodites are self-sufficient

There are some hermaphrodites that fertilize themselves and do not need a partner for reproduction. However, this rarely happens.

The remaining Hermaphrodite however, can mate with any individual they encounter, while organisms of separate sexes require a partner of the opposite sex,to mate. Hence, hermaphroditism is beneficial in these circumstances.

If mating is energetically efficient, hermaphroditism is not a good reproductive strategy. In these cases comes natural selection into play, so that these species ultimately have separate sex organs.

The hermaphrodite is useful even when the population density is very low.

Being a hermaphrodite: the different types of hermaphrodite

Hermaphrodites produce both male and female germ cells. However, the circumstances under which they self-fertilize are specific.

The amount and type of germ cells will depend on what best suits the animal's physical needs.

Therefore, there are two types of hermaphroditism depending on how the number of germ cells is managed: simultaneous and sequential hermaphroditism.

However, some types can switch between the two types as well. This depends on the following factors:

  • Mating competition
  • Size of the population
  • The proportional relationship between the sexes

Simultaneous hermaphroditism

Animals that practice simultaneous hermaphroditism are those who, when they find a partner they can act as both males and females.

The ability to choose one or the other sex can lead to conflict as both individuals will choose the sex that is easier to adopt.

Sequential hermaphrodite

In this case, the animal changes sex in the course of its life. The animal is born with one sex and ends life with the opposite sex. This sex change is preprogrammed in the genes and is determined by the environment itself.

Animals that are hermaphrodites

The hermaphrodite occurs in invertebrates and fish. Here are some examples:

Clown fish

These animals experience the sequential hermaphroditism.Clownfish are born malesbut eventually change sex and become females.

They go through this change even when the females in the group die. This is one method of maintaining the population. All of these changes are controlled and regulated by hormones.

Snails are hermaphrodites

Snails are a classic example of the hermaphrodite. They produce both male and female germ cells. However, they are unable to self-fertilize. So when they mate with their partner, one snail is the male and the other is the female.


Although there are male and female starfish, some species are simultaneous hermaphrodites and others are sequential hermaphrodites.

Everything depends on reproductive success

The hermaphroditic or gender segregation occurs in a species depending on the reproductive success. The population density, the energy expenditure and the mobility are the factors that significantly determine the respective reproductive system.

Finally, we can state that a low population density and no or limited mobility favor hermaphroditism. But if the population is very large and all animals can move quickly and efficiently, separate sexes are cheaper.

As for the last argument, many scholars reiterate that the separation of the sexes is due to hermaphroditism.

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