Spawning times, reproductive compatibilities and genetic structuring in the Acropora aspera group: evidence for natural hybridization and semi-permeable species boundaries in corals


David Miller, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, James Cook University, Townsville 4811, Australia. Fax: + 61 7–47816078; E-mail:


Species boundaries among five sympatric coral species of the Indo-Pacific Acropora aspera group were examined by a combination of in vitro breeding trials, comparisons of spawning times and DNA sequence analysis of ribosomal DNA internal transcribed spacer (rDNA ITS) and 5.8S regions. The breeding trials showed that reproductive compatibility exists between at least some colonies of all the species pairs tested, suggesting a large potential for natural hybridization and introgression. The Acropora ITS regions exhibited extremely high levels of variability (up to ∼62% for ITS1, ∼11% for 5.8S and ∼43% for ITS2), but most of the variation was shared among four of the five species, A. millepora, A. papillare, A. pulchra and A. spathulata, consistent with extensive introgression. Phylogenetic analyses did not resolve these four species as distinct clusters across a wide biogeographic region stretching from the southern Great Barrier Reef to Papua New Guinea. However, most colonies of the fifth species, A. aspera, constituted a distinct clade in phylogenetic analyses. This is consistent with our observations of a semi-permeable temporal barrier involving differences in spawning times between this and the other four species. Although the majority of colonies of all five species generally spawned within 90 min of each other, in two out of four years, gametes were absent prior to mass spawning episodes from at least some A. aspera colonies. Hence, our data suggest that transient reproductive barriers may be the result of year-to-year variation in the date of spawning and that this difference in spawning time contributes to the genetic structure detected among Acropora species in this group. Occasional leakage through the reproductive barrier was confirmed by the observation of A. aspera ×A. pulchra F1 hybrids, identified based on additivity of ITS sequences.