It is proposed that the incorporation of a unique parasitic stage in the life-cycle of unionaceans which involves an obligate relationship between a vertebrate host, usually a fish, and a highly modified larval stage, the glochidium, has had far-reaching consequences with respect to overall morphology, extent of species' geographic ranges, and rate of speciation in the group.

Glochidia are separable into three main types with respect to overall shape and attachment features, and are retained in variously modified brood pouches. When mature, glochidia are released in several different ways which reflect various adaptations involved in either attracting the fish host and/or increasing the probability of attachment. Glochidia do not seem capable of host selection, and the reaction of the host to the parasite seems to be the main factor in determining specificity. Release of glochidia is synchronized to correspond to periods of predictable host availability, such as during spawing migrations and nesting behaviour. Other adaptations include modifications of glochidial conglutinates to mimic host food items, and modifications of the unionacean mantle edges to attract hosts. In all cases, a good correlation exists between the type of lure used and host food preferences, but, despite these adaptations, host specificity among unionaceans seems low.

Parasitism among unionaceans is postulated to be mainly advantageous in terms of predictability of dispersal by habitat-specific hosts, but parasitism is hypothesized to entail constraints in terms of the degree to which shell shape and life-habit can be diversified among unionaceans. The type of host parasitized is considered to affect the rate of diversification among populations and speciation among unionaceans: those that parasitize strictly freshwater hosts are more likely to exhibit highly individualistic populations in different drainages with respect to molecular genetic and soft-part characters, while those that parasitize anadromous or saltwater-tolerant hosts show little differentiation among widely distributed populations.