Royal Society Publishing

Sympatric populations of the highly cross-fertile coral species Acropora hyacinthus and Acropora cytherea are genetically distinct

L. M. Márquez, M. J. H. van Oppen, B. L. Willis, D. J. Miller


High cross–fertilization rates in vitro and non–monophyletic patterns in molecular phylogenies challenge the taxonomic status of species in the coral genus Acropora. We present data from eight polymorphic allozyme loci that indicate small, but significant, differentiation between sympatric populations of Acropora cytherea and Acropora hyacinthus (FST = 0.025−0.068, p < 0.05), a pair of acroporid corals with very high interspecific fertilization rates in vitro. Although no fixed allelic differences were found between these species, the absence of genetic differentiation between widely allopatric populations suggests that allele frequency differences between A. cytherea and A. hyacinthus in sympatry are biologically significant. By contrast, populations of Acropora tenuis, a species which spawns 2–3 hours earlier and shows low cross–fertilization rates with congeners in vitro, were clearly distinct from A. cytherea and A. hyacinthus (FST = 0.427−0.465, p < 0.05). Moreover, allopatric populations of A. tenuis differed significantly, possibly as a consequence of its relatively short period of larval competency. Our results effectively rule out the possibility that A. hyacinthus and A. cytherea are morphotypes within a single species, and indicate that hybridization occurs relatively infrequently between these taxa in nature.

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