Population Genetic Structure, Abundance, and Health Status of Two Dominant Benthic Species in the Saba Bank National Park, Caribbean Netherlands: Montastraea cavernosa and Xestospongia muta

Saba Bank, a submerged atoll in the Caribbean Sea with an area of 2,200 km2, has attained international conservation status due to the rich diversity of species that reside on the bank. In order to assess the role of Saba Bank as a potential reservoir of diversity for the surrounding reefs, we examined the population genetic structure, abundance and health status of two prominent benthic species, the coral Montastraea cavernosa and the sponge Xestospongia muta. Sequence data were collected from 34 colonies of M. cavernosa (nDNA ITS1-5.8S-ITS2; 892 bp) and 68 X. muta sponges (mtDNA I3-M11 partition of COI; 544 bp) on Saba Bank and around Saba Island, and compared with published data across the wider Caribbean. Our data indicate that there is genetic connectivity between populations on Saba Bank and the nearby Saba Island as well as multiple locations in the wider Caribbean, ranging in distance from 100s–1000s km. The genetic diversity of Saba Bank populations of M. cavernosa (π = 0.055) and X. muta (π = 0.0010) was comparable to those in other regions in the western Atlantic. Densities and health status were determined along 11 transects of 50 m2 along the south-eastern rim of Saba Bank. The densities of M. cavernosa (0.27 ind. m-2, 95% CI: 0.12–0.52) were average, while the densities of X. muta (0.09 ind. m-2, 95% CI: 0.02–0.32) were generally higher with respect to other Caribbean locations. No disease or bleaching was present in any of the specimens of the coral M. cavernosa, however, we did observe partial tissue loss (77.9% of samples) as well as overgrowth (48.1%), predominantly by cyanobacteria. In contrast, the majority of observed X. muta (83.5%) showed signs of presumed bleaching. The combined results of apparent gene flow among populations on Saba Bank and surrounding reefs, the high abundance and unique genetic diversity, indicate that Saba Bank could function as an important buffer for the region. Either as a natural source of larvae to replenish genetic diversity or as a storehouse of diversity that can be utilized if needed for restoration practices.

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