Connectivity of two scleractinian corals in the south west Indian Ocean.
Macdonald, Angus Hector Harold.
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Generations of hard corals have built the complex reef ecosystems that harbour a huge diversity of sea-life in the world’s shallow tropical oceans. These undergo both sexual and clonal reproduction, and may contain signatures in their genomes which help to decipher the riddles of past population dynamics and evolutionary history. Two species of coral, Acropora austera and Platygyra daedalea, were collected from sites along the east African coastline from Kenya in the north to Maputaland, South Africa in the south, and from the Chagos Archipelago. Sequences of two different DNA regions were tested, in a preliminary study, for their potential ability to elucidate connectivity and differentiation among these coral populations. These were the nuclear ribosomal ITS region of P. daedalea populations, and a previously-unused marker, the carbonic anhydrase 3/550 nuclear intron of A. austera. These molecular markers indicated high levels of connectivity amongst populations in a preliminary study based on limited sample sizes and a subset of populations. It was decided to further explore the variability of the carbonic anhydrase 3/550 intron, which showed evidence of subdivision and structuring within Mozambique populations relative to South African populations, in a study in which both the sample size per site and the number and range of sampled sites were increased. ITS sequences, although highly variable, revealed no population differentiation in P. daedalea; STR markers were used in subsequent studies of population differentiation in this species. Populations of both A. austera and P. daedalea showed signs of high connectivity along the region of the coastline sampled in this study. However, there appeared to be a disjunction in ecological connectivity between reefs in Maputaland, South Africa and those in southern Mozambique, between Durban and Maputo where the Agulhas Current originates. This was reinforced in A. austera populations which displayed a region of genetic discontinuity between Inhaca Island and Maputaland reefs of the central reef complex, in the region of Rabbit Rock. Northern reef complexes also harboured unique haplotypes in contrast to southern reefs which shared all haplotypes with those in the north, an indication that northern reefs have seeded the southern (Maputaland) reefs. P. daedalea populations appeared evolutionarily panmictic over scales relevant to this study. Evidence for fine-scale structure indicated that populations were separated from one another over ecologically relevant time-scales. These populations were defined by both their habitats and their sampling location. There was a possibility that the Platygyra species complex included cryptic species that were not distinguishable from P. daedalea. However, the disjunction in the connectivity between northern and southern population groups was also evident in the population structure of P. daedalea. There was a net immigration of propagules of both P. daedalea and A. austera into populations north of the disjunction between groups, where the prevailing current regime is dictated by the Mozambique Channel eddies. In contrast populations to the south of the disjunction (the southern population group) which are subject to the swiftly flowing Agulhas Current, showed a net emigration of propagules from Maputaland reefs. These emigrants were likely to be lost to inhospitable habitat south of the marginal Maputaland region. Although there was evidence for migration of both Platygyra and Acropora propagules between the Bazaruto Archipelago reefs and certain Maputaland reefs, genetic exchange between Mozambique and Maputaland reefs appeared to be limited and may have occurred primarily at evolutionary rather than demographic levels. Managers may need to treat the regional Maputaland reefs as separate stocks and manage them accordingly, as the relative isolation of these corals in the central and southern reef complexes in Maputaland, South Africa, means that they are at risk to losing species to evolutionary extinction. It is also important that reef health in northern Mozambique and Tanzania is maintained as, despite evidence of a break in demographic connectivity, between reefs in these regions and those in Maputaland, there was evidence to suggest that reefs were connected at evolutionary scales, thus maintaining levels of genetic diversity on southern African reefs.