Genetic and Taxonomic Relationships Among Northeastern Atlantic and Mediterranean Populations of the Soft Coral Alcyonium Coralloides

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Biology (HMC)

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Species boundaries among taxa of colonial marine organisms are often obscured by intraspecific morphological and ecological variation; genetic comparisons of recognized “ecotypes” frequently reveal them to be reproductively isolated species. Based on morphological similarities, it has been proposed that the Mediterranean soft coral Alcyonium (=Parerythropodium) coralloides Pallas, 1766 and its Atlantic congener A. hibernicum belong to one highly variable and geographically widespread species, A. coralloides. I collected A. coralloides from ten Atlantic and three Mediterranean locations in 1990 and 1994, and used differences in colony form, substrate use and color to separate them into five distinct morphotypes. Two occur sympatrically in the Mediterranean (M1, M2) and three have overlapping distributions in the Atlantic (A1, A2, A3). I used allozyme electrophoresis to compare morphotypes genetically at 14 enzyme loci. Where two morphotypes occurred sympatrically, fixed allelic differences at 4 to 6 loci indicated reproductive isolation. In all but one pairwise comparison (M1 and A2), morphotypes whose ranges did not overlap were also separated by large genetic distances. From these results I suggest that the five morphotypes represent four distinct species. A. coralloides comprises two morphotypes (M1, A2) with relatively high genetic identity. A. hibernicum (=A1) is reproductively isolated from A. coralloides and should be retained as a valid species; levels of genetic diversity and heterozygosity within populations support the absence of outcrossing in this reportedly asexual species. Morphotypes M2 and A3 are also reproductively isolated from A. coralloides; they are taxonomically distinct from but belong to the same phylogenetic clade as A. hibernicum. Although preliminary observations suggest that differences in reproductive timing maintain species boundaries in sympatry, wider geographic sampling will be required to elucidate the events leading to speciation within this species complex.

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© 1999 Springer-Verlag