The population structure of benthic marine organisms is of central relevance to the conservation and management of these often threatened species, as well as to the accurate understanding of their ecological and evolutionary dynamics. A growing body of evidence suggests that marine populations can be structured over short distances despite theoretically high dispersal potential. Yet the proposed mechanisms governing this structure vary, and existing empirical population genetic evidence is of insufficient taxonomic and geographic scope to allow for strong general inferences. Here, we describe the range-wide population genetic structure of an ecologically important Caribbean octocoral, Gorgonia ventalina. Genetic differentiation was positively correlated with geographic distance and negatively correlated with oceanographically modelled dispersal probability throughout the range. Although we observed admixture across hundreds of kilometres, estimated dispersal was low, and populations were differentiated across distances <2 km. These results suggest that populations of G. ventalina may be evolutionarily coupled via gene flow but are largely demographically independent. Observed patterns of differentiation corroborate biogeographic breaks found in other taxa (e.g. an east/west divide near Puerto Rico), and also identify population divides not discussed in previous studies (e.g. the Yucatan Channel). High genotypic diversity and absence of clonemates indicate that sex is the primary reproductive mode for G. ventalina. A comparative analysis of the population structure of G. ventalina and its dinoflagellate symbiont, Symbiodinium, indicates that the dispersal of these symbiotic partners is not coupled, and symbiont transmission occurs horizontally.
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