Morphological plasticity in scleractinian corals

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Abstract

When describing coral shape and form the term phenotypic plasticity, i.e. environment-induced changes in morphology, is often used synonymously with intraspecific variation. Variation, however, may simply be due to genetic differentiation (polymorphism). Of the 1314 extant scleractinian coral species, less than 20 have been tested for plastic responses. Morphological plasticity has important implications for coral identification, as skeletal features used in coral systematics are directly affected by environment. Furthermore, plastic changes can indicate how corals acclimatise to environmental change. The studies that have examined phenotypic plasticity in corals experimentally can be divided into two groups, i.e. ‘non-clonal’—those that have transplanted whole colonies or fragments of colonies (but not treated the fragments as clones) to new environments, and ‘clonal’—those that have transplanted colony fragments and used them as clone-mates. The use of clone-mates is preferable as it facilitates the identification of among-genotype variation for plasticity. The heterogeneous nature of the reef environment makes identifying the parameters that affect coral morphology difficult in the field, but there are also many problems conducting suitable aquarium experiments. Nevertheless, evidence to date suggests light and water movement are the most important variables inducing change. As these factors are known to be axiomatic to coral growth, it is possible that associated plastic changes in corals are adaptive; however, this hypothesis is yet to be tested rigorously.

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