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Genetic diversity and connectivity in the threatened staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) in Florida

Elizabeth M. Hemond, Northeastern University
Steven V. Vollmer, Northeastern University

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Originally published as: Hemond EM, Vollmer SV (2010) Genetic Diversity and Connectivity in the Threatened Staghorn Coral (Acropora cervicornis) in Florida. PLoS ONE 5(1): e8652. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0008652


Over the past three decades, populations of the dominant shallow water Caribbean corals, Acropora cervicornis and A. palmata, have been devastated by white-band disease (WBD), resulting in the listing of both species as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. A key to conserving these threatened corals is understanding how their populations are genetically interconnected throughout the greater Caribbean. Genetic research has demonstrated that gene flow is regionally restricted across the Caribbean in both species. Yet, despite being an important site of coral reef research, little genetic data has been available for the Florida Acropora, especially for the staghorn coral, A. cervicornis. In this study, we present new mitochondrial DNA sequence data from 52 A. cervicornis individuals from 22 sites spread across the upper and lower Florida Keys, which suggest that Florida's A. cervicornis populations are highly genetically interconnected (FST = −0.081). Comparison between Florida and existing mtDNA data from six regional Caribbean populations indicates that Florida possesses high levels of standing genetic diversity (h = 0.824) relative to the rest of the greater Caribbean (h = 0.701±0.043). We find that the contemporary level of gene flow across the greater Caribbean, including Florida, is restricted (ΦCT = 0.117), but evidence from shared haplotypes suggests the Western Caribbean has historically been a source of genetic variation for Florida. Despite the current patchiness of A. cervicornis in Florida, the relatively high genetic diversity and connectivity within Florida suggest that this population may have sufficient genetic variation to be viable and resilient to environmental perturbation and disease. Limited genetic exchange across regional populations of the greater Caribbean, including Florida, indicates that conservation efforts for A. cervicornis should focus on maintaining and managing populations locally rather than relying on larval inputs from elsewhere.

Suggested Citation

Elizabeth M. Hemond and Steven V. Vollmer. "Genetic diversity and connectivity in the threatened staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) in Florida" Biology Faculty Publications (2010).
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