• Corallium rubrum;
  • genetic structure;
  • homoplasy;
  • internal transcribed spacer;
  • Mediterranean Sea;
  • microsatellites


In the past decades, anthropogenic disturbance has increased in marine costal habitats, leading to dramatic shifts in population size structure of various marine species. In the temperate region, the gorgonian coral (Corallium rubrum) is one of the major disturbed species, mostly owing to the exploitation of its red skeleton for jewellery purposes. Red coral is a gonocoric species inhabiting subtidal rocky habitats in the Mediterranean and neighbouring Atlantic coasts. In order to investigate the spatial genetic structuring of C. rubrum, five microsatellite markers and the ribosomal internal transcribed spacer 1 (ITS-1) sequences were analysed in 11 samples from the northwestern Mediterranean Sea. Phylogenetic reconstructions obtained from ITS-1 sequences analysis showed that samples from Minorca and Sardinia islands were the most divergent while the three samples from the Tuscan archipelago (Argentario, Giannutri and Elba) appeared genetically homogeneous. Both markers revealed a strong structuring over large spatial scales (though to a different extent) with no isolation by distance pattern. Microsatellite-based FST estimates appeared much smaller than ITS-based estimates and not significantly correlated, likely due to microsatellite allele size homoplasy typical of these highly polymorphic loci. Our study shows that the absence of clear patterns of genetic structuring over large spatial scales together with strong genetic structuring should be interpreted with caution because such patterns may hide underlying small-scale genetic structuring. Our results further confirm that effective larval dispersal in red coral is highly restricted in the northwestern Mediterranean Sea, suggesting that an increase of anthropogenic disturbance could aggravate the disappearance of red coral, not only along the Mediterranean coasts but also, and with more intensity, in the main Mediterranean islands.