Extreme mitochondrial variation in the Atlantic gall crab Opecarcinus hypostegus (Decapoda: Cryptochiridae) reveals adaptive genetic divergence over Agaricia coral hosts

The effectiveness of migration in marine species exhibiting a pelagic larval stage is determined by various factors, such as ocean currents, pelagic larval stage duration and active habitat selection. Direct measurement of larval movements is difficult and, consequently, factors determining the gene flow patterns remain poorly understood for many species. Patterns of gene flow play a key role in maintaining genetic homogeneity in a species by dampening the effects of local adaptation. Coral-dwelling gall crabs (Cryptochiridae) are obligate symbionts of stony corals (Scleractinia). Preliminary data showed high genetic diversity on the COI gene for 19 Opecarcinus hypostegus specimens collected off Curaçao. In this study, an additional 176 specimens were sequenced and used to characterize the population structure along the leeward side of Curaçao. Extremely high COI genetic variation was observed, with 146 polymorphic sites and 187 unique haplotypes. To determine the cause of this high genetic diversity, various gene flow scenarios (geographical distance along the coast, genetic partitioning over depth, and genetic differentiation by coral host) were examined. Adaptive genetic divergence across Agariciidae host species is suggested to be the main cause for the observed high intra-specific variance, hypothesised as early signs of speciation in O. hypostegus.

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