Aim This study examines the importance of geographic proximity, host life history and regional and local differences in environment (temperature and water clarity) in driving the ecological and evolutionary processes underpinning the global patterns of diversity and distribution of symbiotic dinoflagellates. By comparing and contrasting coral–algal symbioses from isolated regions with differing environmental conditions, we may assess the potential of coral communities to respond to significant changes in climate.
Location Indian Ocean.
Methods Community assemblages of obligate symbiotic invertebrates were sampled at numerous sites from two regions, the north-eastern Indian Ocean (Andaman Sea, western Thailand) and the western Indian Ocean (Zanzibar, Tanzania). Molecular genetic methods, including denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis analysis of the ribosomal internal transcribed spacers, DNA sequencing and microsatellite genotyping, were used to characterize the ‘species’ diversity and evolutionary relationships of symbiotic dinoflagellates (genus Symbiodinium). Host–symbiont specificity, geographic isolation and local and regional environmental factors were evaluated in terms of their importance in governing the distribution and prevalence of certain symbiont taxa.
Results Host-generalist symbionts (C3u and D1-4, formerly D1a now designated Symbiodinium trenchi) frequently occurred alone and sometimes together in hosts with horizontal modes of symbiont acquisition. However, the majority of Symbiodinium diversity consisted of apparently host-specific ‘species’. Clade C Symbiodinium were diverse and dominated host assemblages from sites sampled in the western Indian Ocean, a pattern analogous to symbiont communities on the Great Barrier Reef with similar environmental conditions. Clade D Symbiodinium were diverse and occurred frequently in hosts from the north-eastern Indian Ocean, especially at inshore locations, where temperatures are warmer, water turbidity is high and large tidal exchanges commonly expose coral populations to aerial desiccation.
Main conclusions Regional and local differences in cnidarian–algal combinations indicate that these symbioses are ecologically and evolutionarily responsive and can thrive under various environmental conditions. The high temperatures and turbid conditions of the north-eastern Indian Ocean partly explain the ecological success of Clade D Symbiodinium relative to Clade C. Phylogenetic, ecological and population genetic data further indicate that Clade D has undergone an adaptive radiation, especially in regions around Southeast Asia, during the Pleistocene.