Journal Article

Gender plasticity and sexual system stability in <i>Wurmbea</i>

Glenda Vaughton and Mike Ramsey

in Annals of Botany

Published on behalf of The Annals of Botany Company

Volume 109, issue 3, pages 521-530
Published in print February 2012 | ISSN: 0305-7364
Published online August 2011 | e-ISSN: 1095-8290 | DOI:
Gender plasticity and sexual system stability in Wurmbea

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  • Ecology and Conservation
  • Evolutionary Biology
  • Plant Sciences and Forestry


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Background and aims

Sexually dimorphic populations are often located in drier habitats than cosexual populations. Gender plasticity (GP), whereby hermaphrodites alter female and male functions depending on resources, and sex-differential plasticity (SDP) between hermaphrodites and unisexuals are predicted to affect sexual system stability. Here, GP and SDP are evaluated in cosexual and gynodioecious Wurmbea biglandulosa and sub-dioecious and dioecious W. dioica.


GP was evaluated under two resource conditions, compared among sexual systems and assessed as to whether (1) males produced perfect flowers and (2) hermaphrodites altered investment in perfect (female function) and total (male function) flowers. SDP was assessed within sexual systems as differences between sex functions of hermaphrodites vs. unisexuals. Males and hermaphrodites were compared to assess whether size thresholds for female function differed among sexual systems. Plasticity costs were evaluated using correlations between female function and male traits in hermaphrodites, and in W. dioica by comparing hermaphrodite and male regressions between plant size and pollen production.

Key Results

In dioecious W. dioica no males exhibited GP, whereas 100 % did in gynodioecious and cosexual W. biglandulosa. In sub-dioecious W. dioica, resources affected GP (high, 66 %; low, 42 %). Hermaphrodites in all sexual systems reduced perfect but not total flowers under low resources. Unisexuals were unaffected, demonstrating SDP for female function only. Thresholds for female function were greater in sub-dioecious W. dioica than in W. biglandulosa. Plasticity costs were detected only in sub-dioecious W. dioica.


SDP for female function could assist female establishment in cosexual populations and maintain females in gynodioecious and sub-dioecious populations. Although the absence of male SDP should stabilize sub-dioecy, plasticity costs would render sub-dioecy unstable, favouring canalized males over hermaphrodites. This study highlights the importance of interactions between environmental conditions and hermaphrodite sex expression for the stability of dimorphic sexual systems.

Keywords: Dioecy; gender plasticity; gynodioecy; plant sexual systems; sex-allocation plasticity; sex-differential plasticity; sub-dioecy; Wurmbea biglandulosa; Wurmbea dioica

Journal Article.  7242 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Ecology and Conservation ; Evolutionary Biology ; Plant Sciences and Forestry

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