Christmas tree worms, Spirobranchus spp. (Serpulidae), are known for their wide range of stony host corals, being either scleractinians or milleporids. Apparently, octocorals overgrowing scleractinians act as secondary hosts for Spirobranchus worms.
Coral assemblages on Caribbean reefs have largely been considered to be biogeographically homogeneous at a regional scale. We reassess this in three taxa (corals, sponges and octocorals) using three community attributes with increasing levels of information (species richness, composition and relative abundance) across hierarchical spatial scales, and identify the key environmental drivers associated with this variation.
We assessed reefs along 546 transects positioned within the same forereef habitat (Orbicella reef) in 11 countries, using a consistent methodology and surveyors. Spatial variability in richness, composition and relative abundance was assessed at four hierarchical spatial scales – transects (metres), sites (kilometres), areas (tens of kilometres) and regions (hundreds of kilometres) – using permutational multivariate analysis of variance (PERMANOVA). The relevance of contemporary environmental factors in explaining the observed spatial patterns was also assessed using PERMANOVA.
Consistent with previous studies, species richness of coral assemblages, commonly the focus of biogeographical studies, showed little variance at large spatial scales. In contrast, species composition and relative abundance showed significant variability at regional scales. Coral, sponge and octocoral assemblages each varied independently across spatial scales. Rugosity and wave exposure were key drivers of the composition and relative abundance of coral and octocoral assemblages.
Caribbean reef assemblages exhibit considerable biogeographical variability at broad spatial scales (hundreds of kilometres) when more responsive community attributes were used. However, the high degree of variability within sites (kilometres) highlights the relevance of local ecological drivers such as rugosity and wave exposure in structuring assemblages. The high levels of within-site variability that is not explained by environmental variables may suggest a previously unrealized contribution of anthropogenic disturbance operating at local scales throughout the region.
The ability of coral reefs to recover from natural and anthropogenic disturbance is difficult to predict, in part due to uncertainty regarding the dispersal capabilities and connectivity of their reef inhabitants. We developed microsatellite markers for the broadcast spawning gorgonian octocoral Eunicea (Plexaura) flexuosa (four markers) and its dinoflagellate symbiont, Symbiodinium B1 (five markers), and used them to assess genetic connectivity, specificity and directionality of gene flow among sites in Florida, Panama, Saba and the Dominican Republic. Bayesian analyses found that most E. flexuosa from the Florida reef tract, Saba and the Dominican Republic were strongly differentiated from many E. flexuosa in Panama, with the exception of five colonies from Key West that clustered with colonies from Panama. In contrast, Symbiodinium B1 was more highly structured. At least seven populations were detected that showed patterns of isolation by distance. The symbionts in the five unusual Key West colonies also clustered with symbionts from Panama, suggesting these colonies are the result of long-distance dispersal. Migration rate tests indicated a weak signal of northward immigration from the Panama population into the lower Florida Keys. As E. flexuosa clonemates only rarely associated with the same Symbiodinium B1 genotype (and vice versa), these data suggest a dynamic host–symbiont relationship in which E. flexuosa is relatively well dispersed but likely acquires Symbiodinium B1 from highly struc- tured natal areas prior to dispersal. Once vectored by host larvae, these symbionts may then spread through the local population, and/or host colonies may acquire different local symbiont genotypes over time.