In broadcast–spawning marine animals, rapid dilution and short lifespan of sperm following release may impose severely localized patterns of mating. Partial or total failure of external fertilization due to sperm limitation appears commonplace. However, it is not clear to what extent the restrictive kinetics of fertilization in water also constrain mating in animals that release sperm but retain their eggs for fertilization.
The compound ascidian Diplosoma listerianum liberates sperm that are dispersed to other colonies and taken in prior to internal cross–fertilization. The fertile lifespan of sperm was found to be long (half–life ca. 8 hours), and a substantial number of fertilizations occurred with 24–hour–old sperm. Fertilizations were obtained from sperm concentrations that would typically produce little or no external fertilization. In a separate experiment, a very small piece of D. listerianum (dry weight less than 2 mg) sired abundant progeny throughout a 3840 l tank. Paternity of progeny in these experiments was confirmed by molecular markers. The same markers were used to extend, to over seven weeks, the known maximum period of storage of exogenous sperm prior to fertilization in this species.
The production of only a few thousand sperm at a time by each zooid, poor synchronization of release between zooids, and the existence of many well–spaced exhalant openings in large colonies suggest that D. listerianum is incapable of generating a dense plume of sperm, even close to the source. It is suggested that, unlike external fertilization, successful internal cross–fertilization in D. listerianum is not dependent upon the interception of a dense cloud of gametes just released by a near neighbour. It seems instead that dilute, long–lived sperm can be extracted efficiently from seawater by this suspension feeder, potentially over a period of time. This capability, and other features of the life history, make it unlikely that sperm limitation is an acute problem in this species and comparable taxa, a conclusion with potential significance for expected patterns of mating, sex allocation and gamete attributes in sessile aquatic invertebrates. Variance in reproductive success between individuals due to differences in fertilization rate may be much lower than in broadcast spawners exhibiting external fertilization.