Cryptic changes in the genetic structure of a highly clonal coral population and the relationship with ecological performance

Dana E. Williams, M. W. Miller, I. B. Baums

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19 Scopus citations


Elkhorn coral, Acropora palmata, relies heavily on clonal propagation and often displays low genotypic (clonal) diversity. Populations in the Florida Keys experienced rapid declines in tissue cover between 2004 and 2006, largely due to hurricanes and disease, but remained stable from 2006 to 2010. All elkhorn colonies in 150 m2 permanent study plots were genotyped in 2006 (n = 15 plots) and 2010 (n = 24 plots), and plots sampled in both years were examined for changes in allelic and genotypic diversity during this period of stable ecological abundance. Overall, genetic diversity of Florida plots was low and declined further over the 4-yr period; seven of the 36 original genets and two of 67 alleles (among five microsatellite loci) were lost completely from the sampled population, and an additional 15 alleles were lost from individual reefs. In 2010, Florida plots (~19 colonies) contained an average of 2.2 ± 1.38 (mean ± SD) genets with a significant negative correlation between colony abundance and genotypic diversity. When scaled to total tissue abundance, genotypic diversity is even lower, with 43 % of genets below the size of sexual maturity. We examined the hypothesized positive relationship of local genotypic diversity with ecological performance measures. In Florida plots (n = 15), genotypic diversity was not significantly correlated with tissue loss associated with chronic predation, nor with acute disease and storm-fragmentation events, though this relationship may be obscured by the low range of observed diversity and potential confounding with abundance. When more diverse plots in Curaçao (n = 9) were examined, genotypic diversity was not significantly correlated with resistance during an acute storm disturbance or rate of recovery following disturbance. Cryptic loss of genetic diversity occurred in the apparently stable Florida population and confirms that stable or even increasing abundance does not necessarily indicate genetic stability.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)595-606
Number of pages12
JournalCoral Reefs
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2014

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Aquatic Science


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