Understanding the dispersal processes that influence genetic structure in marine species requires estimating gene flow in a dynamic, fluid environment that is often poorly characterized at scales relevant to multiple dispersive stages (e.g. spores, gametes, zygotes, larvae, adults). We examine genetic structure in the marine alga Fucus vesiculosus L., which inhabits moderately exposed shores in the northern Atlantic but releases gametes only under sunny, calm conditions. We predicted genetic structure would correlate with coastal topography because weather frequently varies across coastal promontories on the Maine shore when F. vesiculosus is reproductive, which causes one side to experience high levels of water motion (= no gamete release) while one side is calm (= gamete release). Furthermore, we expected that the effect of low dispersal capacities of gametes and zygotes would result in spatial genetic structure over short distances. Using surface drifters, we characterized near-shore circulation patterns around the study sites to investigate whether directionality of gene flow was correlated with directionality of currents. We found significant genetic differentiation among sites sampled at two different peninsulas, but patterns of differentiation were unrelated to coastal topography and there was no within-site spatial structuring. Our genetic and near-shore circulation data, combined with an examination of gamete longevity, support the dependency of gene flow on storm-detached, rafting, reproductive adults. This study highlights the significance of rafting as a mechanism for structuring established populations of macroalgae and associated biota and demonstrates the importance of coupling population genetics’ research with relevant hydrodynamic studies.
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