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Keywords:

  • AFLP;
  • anthropogenic dispersal;
  • clonality;
  • estuary;
  • introduced species;
  • Nematostella vectensis;
  • reproductive plasticity

Abstract

Nematostella vectensis is an infaunal anemone occurring in salt marshes, lagoons and other estuarine habitats in North America and the United Kingdom. Although it is considered rare and receives protection in England, it is widely distributed and abundant in the United States, particularly along the Atlantic coast. Recent studies suggest that both anthropogenic dispersal and reproductive plasticity may significantly influence the genetic structure of N. vectensis populations. Amplified fragment length polymorphism (AFLP) fingerprinting of individuals from nine populations in the northeastern United States indicates that stable populations are maintained by both asexual and sexual reproduction; in some cases asexually reproducing lineages exist within sexually reproducing populations. F statistics reveal extraordinarily high degrees of genetic differentiation between populations, even those separated by very short distances (less than 100 m). Genetic distances show little to no correlation with geographical distances, consistent with a role for sporadic, geographically discontinuous dispersal coupled with limited gene flow. No single genotype was found at more than one site, despite apparent homogeneity of habitat. In contrast with reported genotypic distributions for Nematostella in the United Kingdom, where a single clonal genotype dominates at multiple sites through southern England, our data thus fail to support the hypothesis of a general-purpose genotype in the northeastern United States. However, they are consistent with important roles for reproductive plasticity, sporadic introductions and complex local population dynamics in determining the global and regional distribution of this species.