Hermaphrodites in Biology: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Reproducing is one of the main goals of any living organism. But finding a mate can sometimes be a real challenge. Evolution has led to some interesting ways to make it easier, including hermaphroditism.

Sharing Responsibility

One thing that all organisms on Earth share is that they need to reproduce. Reproduction allows plants and animals to pass on their genetic material to the next generation. This is done either sexually with fertilization, or asexually by cloning. But there are different ways to do both, and much of what drives the way an organism reproduces is its environment. Depending on where and how various organisms live and interact, evolution has led to some pretty interesting ways to make babies.

One specific way that evolution has played a role in sexual reproduction is hermaphroditism, in which, instead of being either male or female, an individual organism has both reproductive systems. The word hermaphrodite comes from Greek mythology. Hermaphroditus, who was the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, was fused with a woman, resulting in one person being both male and female.

Earthworms are hermaphrodites that you can find in your own backyard

It's important to note that being both sexes doesn't necessarily mean that an individual can mate with itself. That is sometimes the case, as with tapeworms, but most of the time it still takes two individuals to create offspring.

Evolutionary Advantage

You might be wondering why it would be so advantageous to be both sexes if you still need to find a partner. Even for non-human organisms, that's often the hardest part! But if you are an animal that doesn't come into contact with your own species very often, it's much better to find a sure-thing every time than it is to have a 50/50 chance. If you and all of your potential partners are both male and female, then you have the opportunity to mate with whomever you come across.

This specific type of hermaphroditism is called simultaneous hermaphroditism because an organism is simultaneously male and female, and can produce both sperm and egg at any time. Not only is this beneficial in terms of mating probability, it may also double your offspring if both partners can leave with fertilized eggs.

Hermaphroditism is also helpful when there's a disruption to the normal order. Some animals have both reproductive systems, but only use one at a time; this is called sequential hermaphroditism. However, they can also switch gender if the need arises. For example, let's say you live in a group with one male and several females. If something happens to that male, all of the females are at a loss. But if there is a female that can step in and become the lead male, then the group survives, and genes can still be passed on to future generations. Pretty slick, huh?

Clown fish are a popular aquarium fish, but also hermaphrodites
clown fish

An organism that switches its gender like this, from female to male, is called protogynous. But, it can go the other way, too. Organisms that switch from male to female are called protandrous.

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