Massive gene flow across the world's most potent marine biogeographic barrier

H.A Lessios, B.D Kessing, D.R Robertson


The ‘Eastern Pacific Barrier’ (EPB), 5400 km of uninterrupted deep water between the central and eastern Pacific, constitutes the greatest marine obstacle to the dispersal of shallow–water organisms. However, some species are found on both sides of the EPB. These ‘transpacific’ species are considered by ‘dispersal’ biogeographers as evidence of invasions through the barrier. ‘Vicariance’ biogeographers, on the other hand, think that transpacific species are morphologically conservative remnants of previously continuous distributions. We compared nucleotide sequences in a 642 bp region of mitochondrial DNA, and electrophoretically detected alleles in 17 enzymatic loci of central and eastern Pacific populations of Echinothrix diadema, an Indo–Pacific sea urchin recently reported from the eastern Pacific. Both types of molecules produced clear evidence of massive, recent gene flow across the EPB. Thus, rather than being isolated relicts of Tethyan distributions, conspecific populations from the eastern and central Pacific are genetically connected. Though the EPB is biogeographically important as a cause of speciation in many groups, it allows genetic connections in others, possibly through larval transport during El Niño events.

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