, Volume 10, Issue 8, pp 1197-1213
Date: 12 Dec 2007

Global population genetic structure of the starlet anemone Nematostella vectensis: multiple introductions and implications for conservation policy

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Distinguishing natural versus anthropogenic dispersal of organisms is essential for determining the native range of a species and implementing an effective conservation strategy. For cryptogenic species with limited historical records, molecular data can help to identify introductions. Nematostella vectensis is a small, burrowing estuarine sea anemone found in tidally restricted salt marsh pools. This species’ current distribution extends over three coast lines: (i) the Atlantic coast of North America from Nova Scotia to Georgia, (ii) the Pacific coast of North America from Washington to central California, and (iii) the southeast coast of England. The 1996 IUCN Red List designates N. vectensis as “vulnerable” in England. Amplified fragment length polymorphism (AFLP) fingerprinting of 516 individuals from 24 N. vectensis populations throughout its range and mtDNA sequencing of a subsample of these individuals strongly suggest that anthropogenic dispersal has played a significant role in its current distribution. Certain western Atlantic populations of N. vectensis exhibit greater genetic similarity to Pacific populations or English populations than to other western Atlantic populations. At the same time, F-statistics showing high degrees of genetic differentiation between geographically proximate populations support a low likelihood for natural dispersal between salt marshes. Furthermore, the western Atlantic harbors greater genetic diversity than either England or the eastern Pacific. Collectively, these data clearly imply that N. vectensis is native to the Atlantic coast of North America and that populations along the Pacific coast and in England are cases of successful introduction.