Many free-living nematodes, including the laboratory model organisms Caenorhabditis elegans and Pristionchus pacificus, have a choice between direct and indirect development, representing an important case of phenotypic plasticity. Under harsh environmental conditions, these nematodes form dauer larvae, which arrest development, show high resistance to environmental stress and constitute a dispersal stage. Pristionchus pacificus occurs in a strong association with scarab beetles in the wild and remains in the dauer stage on the living beetle. Here, we explored the circumstances under which P. pacificus enters and exits the dauer stage by using a natural variation approach. The analysis of survival, recovery and fitness after dauer exit of eight P. pacificus strains revealed that dauer larvae can survive for up to 1 year under experimental conditions. In a second experiment, we isolated dauer pheromones from 16 P. pacificus strains, and tested for natural variation in pheromone production and sensitivity in cross-reactivity assays. Surprisingly, 13 of the 16 strains produce a pheromone that induces the highest dauer formation in individuals of other genotypes. These results argue against a simple adaptation model for natural variation in dauer formation and suggest that strains may have evolved to induce dauer formation precociously in other strains in order to reduce the fitness of these strains. We therefore discuss intraspecific competition among genotypes as a previously unconsidered aspect of dauer formation.
- Received December 22, 2010.
- Accepted January 20, 2011.
- This journal is © 2011 The Royal Society