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Keywords:

  • Acropora;
  • colour polymorphism;
  • genetic structure;
  • Gobiodon;
  • specialization;
  • symbiosis

Abstract

Symbiotic relationships have contributed greatly to the evolution and maintenance of biological diversity. On the Great Barrier Reef, species of obligate coral-dwelling fishes (genus Gobiodon) coexist by selectively recruiting to colonies of Acropora nasuta that differ in branch-tip colour. In this study, we investigate genetic variability among sympatric populations of two colour morphs of A. nasuta (‘blue-tip’ and ‘brown-tip’) living in symbiosis with two fish species, Gobiodon histrio and G. quinquestrigatus, respectively, to determine whether gobies are selecting between intraspecific colour polymorphisms or cryptic coral species. We also examine genetic differentiation among coral populations containing both these colour morphs that are separated by metres between local sites, tens of kilometres across the continental shelf and hundreds of kilometres along the Great Barrier Reef. We use three nuclear DNA loci, two of which we present here for the first time for Acropora. No significant genetic differentiation was detected between sympatric colour morphs at these three loci. Hence, symbiotic gobies are selecting among colour morphs of A. nasuta, rather than cryptic species. Significant genetic geographical structuring was observed among populations, independent of colour, at regional (i.e. latitudinal separation by < 500 km) and cross-shelf (< 50 km) scales, alongside relative homogeneity between local populations on within reef scales (< 5 km). This contrasts with the reported absence of large-scale genetic structuring in A. valida, which is a member of the same species group as A. nasuta. Apparent differences in biogeographical structuring between species within the A. nasuta group emphasize the need for comparative sampling across both spatial (i.e. within reefs, between reefs and between regions) and taxonomic scales (i.e. within and between closely related species).