Sex & the Reign of the Red Queen

Why sexual species beat clones every time.


“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.”

From a simple reproductive perspective, males are not a good investment. With apologies to my Y chromosome-bearing readers, let me explain. Consider for a moment a population of clones. Let’s go with lizards, since this actually occurs in lizards. So we have our population of lizard clones. They are all female, and are all able to reproduce, leading to twice the potential for creating more individuals as we see in a species that reproduces sexually, in which only 50% of the members can bear young. Males require all the same resources to survive to maturity, but cannot directly produce young. From this viewpoint alone, the population of clones should out-compete a bunch of sexually-reproducing lizards every time. Greater growth potential. What’s more, the clonal lizards can better exploit a well-adapted set of genes (a “genotype”); if one of them is well-suited to survive in its environment, they all are.

Now consider a parasite that preys upon our hypothetical lizards. The parasites themselves have different genotypes, and a given parasite genotype can attack certain host (i.e. lizard) genotypes, like keys that fit certain locks. Over time, they will evolve to be able to attack the most common host genotype, because that results in their best chance of survival. If there’s an abundance of host type A, but not much B or C, then more A-type parasites will succeed in reproducing, and over time, there will be more A-type parasites overall. This is called a selection pressure, in favour of A-type parasites. In a population of clones, however, there is only one genotype, and once the parasites have evolved to specialise in attacking it, the clones have met their match. They are all equally vulnerable.

The sexual species, however, presents a moving target. This is where males become absolutely worth the resources it takes to create and maintain their existence (See? No hard feelings). Each time a sexual species mates, its genes are shuffled and recombined in novel ways. There are both common and rare genotypes in a sexual population. The parasite population will evolve to be able to attack the most common genotype, as they do with the clones, but in this case, it will be a far smaller portion of the total host population. And as soon as that particular genotype starts to die off and become less common, a new genotype, once rare (and now highly successful due to its current resistance to parasites), will fill the vacuum and become the new ‘most common’ genotype. And so on, over generations and generations.

Both species, parasite and host, must constantly evolve simply to maintain the status quo. This is where the Red Queen hypothesis gets its name: in Wonderland, the Red Queen tells Alice, “here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.” For many years, evolution was thought of as a journey with an endpoint: species would evolve until they were optimally adapted to their environment, and then stay that way until the environment changed in some fashion. If this was the case, however, we would expect that a given species would be less likely to go extinct the longer it had existed, because it would be better and better adapted over time. And yet, the evidence didn’t seem to bear this prediction out. The probability of extinction seemed to stay the same regardless of the species’ age. We now know that this is because the primary driver of evolution isn’t the environment, but competition between species. And that’s a game you can lose at any time.

Passionflower. Photo by Yone Moreno on Wikimedia Commons.

Now the parasite attacking the lizards was just a (very plausible) hypothetical scenario, but there are many interesting cases of the Red Queen at work in nature. And it’s not all subtly shifting genotypes, either; sometimes it’s a full on arms race. Behold the passionflower. In the time of the dinosaurs, passionflowers developed a mutually beneficial pollinator relationship with longwing butterflies. The flowers got pollinated, the butterflies got nectar. But then, over time, the butterflies began to lay their eggs on the vines’ leaves. Once the eggs hatched, the young would devour the leaves, leaving the plant much the worse for wear. In response, the passionflowers evolved to produce cyanide in their leaves, poisoning the butterfly larvae. The butterflies then turned the situation to their advantage by evolving the ability to not only eat the poisonous leaves, but to sequester the cyanide in their bodies and use it to themselves become poisonous to their predators, such as birds. The plants’ next strategy was to mimic the butterflies’ eggs. Longwing butterflies will not lay their eggs on a leaf which is already holding eggs, so the passionflowers evolved nectar glands of the same size and shape as a butterfly egg. After aeons of this back and forth, the butterflies are currently laying their eggs on the tendrils of the passionflower vines rather than the leaves, and we might expect that passionflowers will next develop tendrils which appear to have butterfly eggs on them. These sorts of endless, millennia-spanning arms races are common in nature. Check out my article on cuckoos for a much more murderous example.

Egg-like glands at the base of the passionflower leaf (the white dots on my index finger).

Had the passionflowers in this example been a clonal species, they wouldn’t likely have stood a chance. Innovations such as higher-than-average levels of cyanide or slightly more bulbous nectar glands upon which defences can be built come from uncommon genotypes. Uncommon genotypes produced by the shuffling of genes that occurs in every generation in sexual species.

And that, kids, is why sex is such as fantastic innovation. (Right?) Every time an illness goes through your workplace, and everybody seems to get it but you, you’ve probably got the Red Queen (and your uncommon genotype) to thank.



  • Brockhurst et al. (2014) Proc. R. Soc. B 281: 20141382.
  • Lively (2010) Journal of Heredity 101 (supple.): S13-S20 [See this paper for a very interesting full explanation of this links between the Red Queen hypothesis and the story by Lewis Carroll.]
  • Vanderplank, John. “Passion Flowers, 2nd Ed.” Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996.

*The illustration at the top of the page is by Sir John Tenniel for Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass,” and is now in the public domain.

Theft: Better Than Sex (Bdelloid Rotifers)

(Via: Wikimedia Commons, Image by: Diego Fontaneto)

Common Name: Bdelloid Rotifers

A.K.A.: Families of Order Bdelloida

Vital Stats:

  • Around 360 asexual species
  • All species likely descended from the same ancestor
  • Common ancestor lived 50-100 million years ago

Found: Fresh water bodies of any size, on every continent, including Antarctica

It Does What?!

Here’s a creature that truly exhibits questionable evolution- as in, the kind that tends to make you go extinct in a hurry. Bdelloid rotifers (the ‘B’ is silent) are microscopic animals found in all kinds of moist, freshwater habitats- puddles, ponds, mossy areas; you name it, they’re probably there. What’s so unusual about these guys is that they’re entirely asexual, and have been for a very, very long time. In fact, bdelloid rotifers are all female, a consequence of how they reproduce.

Don’t drink pond water.

Now, asexual reproduction isn’t so uncommon. If you look at a field of dandelions, chances are, they’re all clones derived from asexual reproduction in a single common ancestor- no second parent needed. Even such advanced creatures as komodo dragons do this periodically- a baby dragon is formed from an unfertilized egg inside the mother. What differentiates bdelloid rotifers from other asexual reproducers is that it’s all they’ve done for the last 50 million years or more. Outside of our friends the rotifers, a species must either have sex from time to time, or face extinction.

Why? Because sex solves two major problems in life (your individual results may vary..). First, it weeds out errors which tend to accumulate in DNA over time. Unlike asexuals, which pass on a copy of a copy of a copy (etc.) of their genes, sperm and egg cells contain DNA which has been mixed and matched via a process called meiosis. The gist of this is that an organism can procreate without necessarily passing on any genetic errors it may have to the next generation. Second, this same process of mixing and matching creates new combinations of DNA sequences, which in turn create the natural variation between individuals that evolution can select for or against.

Not the most visually interesting creatures, these rotifers…
(Via: Natural History Museum)

For example, a genetic combination which caused a polar bear to be born with a white nose would be selected for, since it would make a more effective camouflage for hunting. On the other hand, a combination which gave polar bears big black patches on their fur would be selected against, because they’d have a harder time hunting and would therefore starve more often. Asexuals, however, can neither quickly generate useful new combinations, nor purge their populations of harmful mutations.

So on the surface, it comes as a surprise to biologists that bdelloid rotifers have been able to survive for such an epic amount of time with no sex (in addition to the absence of males, genetic tests are able to show that meiosis hasn’t occurred). However, the rotifers have two impressive ways of dealing with this. First, when times get tough, they already have a pretty good defence mechanism worked out- they just dry up. The rotifer dehydrates itself and forms a dormant cyst in which it can remain in this state until conditions improve. This is called anhydrobiosis.

…but what do you expect from sexless pond scum?

Second, and more importantly, they steal genes. This is the true secret to the successful asexual lifestyle. When a rotifer emerges from dormancy and needs to patch itself up, it’s actually able to incorporate random genetic material from its environment into its own genome. A nearby bacterium, some fungus, a passing bit of rotting leaf? All fair game, apparently. Researchers have found genes from each of these three groups in the rotifer genome. Incorporating these new bits of sequence seems to give rotifers the variation they need to develop new traits and stay off the evolutionary chopping block. In fact, given the success of the bdelloid rotifers – they’ve evolved into over 300 species since giving up sex – and the ease of asexual procreation – no need to find a partner – an argument could be made that when it comes to new genes, theft really is better than sex.

Says Who?

  • Gladyshev et al. (2008) Science 320(5880): 1210-1213
  • Harvard Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 2000 “An Evolutionary Scandal
  • Welch & Meselson (2000) Science 288(5469): 1211-1215
  • Wilson & Sherman (2010) Science 327(5965): 574-576