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Adaptation of reef and mangrove sponges to stress: evidence for ecological speciation exemplified by Chondrilla caribensis new species (Demospongiae, Chondrosida)


Klaus Rützler, Department of Invertebrate Zoology, Smithsonian Institution, MRC 163, Washington, DC 20013-7012, USA.


Sponges (Porifera) in mangroves have adapted to a wide range of environmental parameters except for extended periods of exposure to freshwater or air. Many marine mangrove islands are located in the shallow backwaters of coral reefs in Belize and elsewhere in the Caribbean and have a mean tidal range of only 15 cm. They are densely populated by sponges, mostly attached to subtidal red-mangrove stilt roots and peat banks lining tidal channels. Some species are endemic to mangroves, others are immigrants from nearby reefs. Mangrove endemics endure environmental hardships, such as occasional exposure to air during spring tides, temperature and salinity extremes, fine sediments, even burial in detritus. Reef immigrants into mangroves enjoy protection from spongivores that do not stray into the swamp but they eventually succumb to environmental stress. There is evidence exemplified by the common demosponge Chondrilla aff. nucula, that sponges flourishing in both mangrove and reef habitats may develop separate ecologically specialized and reproductively isolated populations. Such processes can lead to genetic modifications and thus serve as mechanisms for ecological speciation. Because Chondrilla nucula Schmidt was first described from the Mediterranean Sea, it was long suspected that the western Atlantic population may be a separate species. New morphological and molecular evidence prompt us to describe it under a new name, Chondrilla caribensis, with two ecological forms, forma caribensis from mangroves and lagoons, and forma hermatypica from open reefs.

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