26 Chapter 26: Asexual reproduction

Anastasia Chouvalova

Animals produce offspring through asexual and/or sexual reproduction. Both methods have advantages and disadvantages. Asexual reproduction produces offspring that are genetically identical to the parent because the offspring are all clones of the original parent. A single individual can produce offspring asexually and large numbers of offspring can be produced quickly. In a stable or predictable environment, asexual reproduction is an effective means of reproduction because all the offspring will be adapted to that environment. In an unstable or unpredictable environment asexually-reproducing species may be at a disadvantage because all the offspring are genetically identical and may not have the genetic variation to survive in new or different conditions. On the other hand, the rapid rates of asexual reproduction may allow for a speedy response to environmental changes if individuals have mutations. An additional advantage of asexual reproduction is that colonization of new habitats may be easier when an individual does not need to find a mate to reproduce.

During sexual reproduction the genetic material of two individuals is combined to produce genetically diverse offspring that differ from their parents. The genetic diversity of sexually produced offspring is thought to give species a better chance of surviving in an unpredictable or changing environment. Species that reproduce sexually must maintain two different types of individuals, males and females, which can limit the ability to colonize new habitats as both sexes must be present.

Reading Question #1

Which of the following is not an advantage of asexual reproduction?

A. Easier colonization of new habitats

B. Fast rate of offspring production

C. Many offspring produced

D. A more diverse gene pool

Asexual Reproduction

Asexual reproduction occurs in prokaryotic microorganisms (bacteria) and in some eukaryotic single-celled and multi-celled organisms. There are a number of ways that animals reproduce asexually – fission, budding, fragmentation, and parthenogenesis.


Fission, also called binary fission, occurs in prokaryotic microorganisms and in some invertebrate, multi-celled organisms. After a period of growth, an organism splits into two separate organisms. Some unicellular eukaryotic organisms undergo binary fission by mitosis. In other organisms, part of the individual separates and forms a second individual. This process occurs, for example, in many asteroid echinoderms through splitting of the central disk. Some sea anemones and some coral polyps (Figure 25.1) also reproduce through fission.

Figure 25.1 Coral polyps reproduce asexually by fission. (credit: G. P. Schmahl, NOAA FGBNMS Manager)


Budding is a form of asexual reproduction that results from the outgrowth of a part of a cell or body region leading to a separation from the original organism into two individuals. Budding occurs commonly in some invertebrate animals such as corals and hydras. In hydras, a bud forms that develops into an adult and breaks away from the main body, as illustrated in Figure 25.2, whereas in coral budding, the bud does not detach and multiplies as part of a new colony. Visit this link to view a video of hydra budding.

Figure 25.2 Hydra reproduce asexually through budding.


Fragmentation is the breaking of the body into two parts with subsequent regeneration. If the animal is capable of fragmentation, and the part is big enough, a separate individual will regrow.

For example, in many sea stars, asexual reproduction is accomplished by fragmentation. Figure 25.3 illustrates a sea star for which an arm of the individual is broken off and regenerates a new sea star. Fisheries workers have been known to try to kill the sea stars eating their clam or oyster beds by cutting them in half and throwing them back into the ocean. Unfortunately for the workers, the two parts can each regenerate a new half, resulting in twice as many sea stars to prey upon the oysters and clams. Fragmentation also occurs in annelid worms, turbellarians, and poriferans.

Figure 25.3 Sea stars can reproduce through fragmentation. The large arm, a fragment from another sea star, is developing into a new individual.

Note that in fragmentation, there is generally a noticeable difference in the size of the individuals, whereas in fission, two individuals of approximate size are formed.


Parthenogenesis is a form of asexual reproduction where an egg develops into a complete individual without being fertilized. The resulting offspring can be either haploid or diploid, depending on the process and the species. Parthenogenesis occurs in invertebrates such as water fleas, rotifers, aphids, stick insects, some ants, wasps, and bees. Bees use parthenogenesis to produce haploid males (drones). If eggs are fertilized, diploid females develop, and if the fertilized eggs are fed a special diet (so called royal jelly), a queen is produced.

Some vertebrate animals—such as certain reptiles, amphibians, and fish—also reproduce through parthenogenesis. Although more common in plants, parthenogenesis has been observed in animal species that were segregated by sex in terrestrial or marine zoos. Two female Komodo dragons, a hammerhead shark, and a blacktop shark have produced parthenogenic young when the females have been isolated from males.


Reading Question #2

Match the following definitions of different types of asexual reproduction to their terms.

A) Fission      B) Budding    C) Fragmentation     D) Parthenogenesis

  1. An unfertilized egg becomes a fully-functioning organism
  2. One body separates into two separate bodies.
  3. A portion of the parental organism splits into smaller parts.
  4. Some outgrowth of the parental organism produces the offspring.

Fertilization methods in sexual reproduction

Sexual reproduction starts with the combination of a sperm and an egg in a process called fertilization. This can occur either inside (internal fertilization) or outside (external fertilization) the body of the female. Humans provide an example of the former whereas seahorse reproduction is an example of the latter.

External Fertilization

External fertilization usually occurs in aquatic environments where both eggs and sperm are released into the water. After the sperm reaches the egg, fertilization takes place. Most external fertilization happens during the process of spawning where one or several females release their eggs and the male(s) release sperm in the same area, at the same time. The release of the reproductive material may be triggered by water temperature or the length of daylight. Nearly all fish spawn, as do crustaceans (such as crabs and shrimp), mollusks (such as oysters), squid, and echinoderms (such as sea urchins and sea cucumbers). Figure 25.4 shows salmon spawning in a shallow stream. Frogs, like those shown in Figure 25.5, corals, mollusks, and sea cucumbers also spawn.

Figure 25.4 Salmon reproduce through spawning. (credit: Dan Bennett)
Figure 25.5 During sexual reproduction in toads, the male grasps the female from behind and externally fertilizes the eggs as they are deposited. (credit: “OakleyOriginals”/Flickr)

Pairs of fish that are not broadcast spawners may exhibit courtship behavior. This allows the female to select a particular male. The trigger for egg and sperm release (spawning) causes the egg and sperm to be placed in a small area, enhancing the possibility of fertilization.

External fertilization in an aquatic environment protects the eggs from drying out. Broadcast spawning can result in a greater mixture of the genes within a group, leading to higher genetic diversity and a greater chance of species survival in a hostile environment. For sessile aquatic organisms like sponges, broadcast spawning is the only mechanism for fertilization and colonization of new environments. The presence of the fertilized eggs and developing young in the water provides opportunities for predation resulting in a loss of offspring. Therefore, millions of eggs must be produced by individuals, and the offspring produced through this method must mature rapidly. The survival rate of eggs produced through broadcast spawning is low.

Reading Question #3

Which of the following species is least likely to use external fertilization?

A. Sea anemones

B. Turtles

C. Cod fish

D. American bullfrog

Internal Fertilization

Internal fertilization occurs most often in land-based animals, although some aquatic animals also use this method. There are three ways that offspring are produced following internal fertilization. In oviparity, fertilized eggs are laid outside the parent’s body and develop there, receiving nourishment from the yolk that is a part of the egg. This occurs in most bony fish, many reptiles, some cartilaginous fish, most amphibians, two mammals, and all birds. Reptiles and insects produce leathery eggs, while birds and turtles produce eggs with high concentrations of calcium carbonate in the shell, making them hard. Chicken eggs are an example of this second type.

In ovoviviparity, fertilized eggs are retained in the parent (usually the female), but the embryo obtains its nourishment from the egg’s yolk and the young are fully developed when they are hatched. This occurs in some bony fish (like the guppy Lebistes reticulatus), some sharks, some lizards, some snakes (such as the garter snake Thamnophis sirtalis), some vipers, and some invertebrate animals (like the Madagascar hissing cockroach Gromphadorhina portentosa).

In viviparity the young develop within the female, receiving nourishment from the parent’s blood through a placenta. The offspring develops in the female and is born alive. This occurs in most mammals, some cartilaginous fish, and a few reptiles.

Internal fertilization has the advantage of protecting the fertilized egg from dehydration on land. The embryo is isolated within the female, which limits predation on the young. Internal fertilization enhances the fertilization of eggs by a specific male. Fewer offspring are produced through this method, but their survival rate is higher than that for external fertilization.

Reading Question #4

The great white shark mother contains the fertilized egg and the yolk nourishes the embryo until it is mature enough to hatch. This is a description of:

A. Oviparity

B. Ovoviviparity

C. Viviparity

D. External fertilization

The Evolution of Reproduction

Once multicellular organisms evolved and developed specialized cells, some also developed tissues and organs with specialized functions. An early development in reproduction occurred in the Annelids. These organisms produce sperm and eggs from undifferentiated cells in their coelom and store them in that cavity. When the coelom becomes filled, the cells are released through an excretory opening or by the body splitting open. Reproductive organs evolved with the development of gonads that produce sperm and eggs. These cells went through meiosis, an adaptation of mitosis, which reduced the number of chromosomes in each reproductive cell by half, while increasing the number of cells through cell division.

Complete reproductive systems were developed in insects, with separate sexes. Sperm are made in testes and then travel through coiled tubes to the epididymis for storage. Eggs mature in the ovary. When they are released from the ovary, they travel to the uterine tubes for fertilization. Some insects have a specialized sac, called a spermatheca, which stores sperm for later use, sometimes up to a year. Fertilization can be timed with environmental or food conditions that are optimal for offspring survival.

Vertebrates have similar structures, with a few differences. Non-mammals, such as birds and reptiles, have a common body opening, called a cloaca, for the digestive, excretory and reproductive systems. Coupling between birds usually involves positioning the cloaca openings opposite each other for transfer of sperm. Mammals have separate openings for the systems in the female and a uterus for support of developing offspring. The uterus has two chambers in species that produce large numbers of offspring at a time, while species that produce one offspring, such as primates, have a single uterus.

Sperm transfer from the male to the female during reproduction ranges from releasing the sperm into the watery environment for external fertilization, to the joining of cloaca in birds, to the development of a penis for direct delivery into the female’s vagina in mammals.

Reading Question #5

Which of the following statements correctly describes external and internal fertilization in sexual reproduction? Select all that apply.

A. In internal fertilization, the offspring is fertilized outside of the parent’s body while in external fertilization, the offspring is fertilized inside of the parent’s body.

B. In internal fertilization, the main advantage is that the embryo is protected from extrinsic factors such as wind and lack of humidity.

C. In external fertilization, there tends to be less offspring produced.

D. Three examples of external fertilization are oviparity, ovoviviparity, and vivparity.


Adapted from Clark, M.A., Douglas, M., and Choi, J. (2018). Biology 2e. OpenStax. Retrieved from https://openstax.org/books/biology-2e/pages/1-introduction



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Introductory Biology 2 Copyright © 2023 by Anastasia Chouvalova is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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