Ecological genetic connectivity between and within southeast African marginal coral reefs.
Marine protected areas (MPAs) have been established along the East African coast to protect coral communities from human and natural disturbance. Their success is dependent on the degree to which resource populations are self-seeding or otherwise connected. Estimates of contemporary gene flow on or between south-east African reefs are thus required to reveal the interdependence of the South African coral communities and those to the north. Accordingly, the ecologically relevant (1 or 2 generations) connectivity of two broadcast-spawning corals, Acropora austera and Platygyra daedalea, was assessed on reefs in the region, from the Chagos Archipelago to Bazaruto Island in Mozambique and Sodwana Bay in South Africa, using hyper-variable genetic markers. Analysis of genetic diversity and differentiation provided evidence for the existence of four discrete genetic populations of A. austera and five of P. daedalea in the sampled area. Higher genetic diversity was found on northern South African reefs (Nine-mile Reef and Rabbit Rock) and migration patterns inferred from assignment tests suggested that, at ecological time scales, South African reefs are disconnected from those in Mozambique and might originate from a source of gene flow that was not sampled. The analysis of fine-scale genetic connectivity conducted on Two-mile Reef (TMR) demonstrated the existence of significant spatial genetic structure at the reefal scale that might be related to the non-random dispersal of coral larvae, putatively explaining the genetic discontinuity observed in the region. Altogether, the results are consistent with the isolation observed in other studies using less variable markers, and support the hypothesis that there is demographic discontinuity between the coral populations along the south-east African coast. More importantly, Acropora austera and P. daedalea represent different life strategies in the South African reef communities yet manifested similar genetic patterns, suggesting that these corals are responding similarly to forces that are driving genetic connectivity in the region. For management purposes, the genetically distinct populations identified at each of the spatial scales analysed in this study may correspond to management units, or evolutionarily significant units. Furthermore, since some reefs appear to act as “landing-sites” for migrants (Nine-mile Reef) and there is evidence of significant within-reef genetic structure (TMR), an adaptive management framework would be the best option for the MPA in the region.