Hybridization within the species complex of the scleractinan coral Montastraea annularis
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The morphologically variable reef coral previously known as Montastraea annularis (Ellis and Solander, 1786) has recently been separated into three species based on differences in morphology, behavior, allele frequencies and some life-history traits of Panamanian specimens. To further investigate the proposed reclassification and its conformity to the biological species concept we conducted reciprocal intra- and inter- specific fertilization experiments with gametes from each of the three species on Florida reefs. With one exception, self-fertilization rates were very low or zero. Within-species crosses resulted in production of planulae, as did all inter-species (hybrid) crosses, but there was much variation in fertilization success within each type of cross. In an experiment with separated gametes, hybrid crosses between M. annularis and M. franksi produced more larvae than within-species crosses for each species. Hybridization crosses between M. faveolata and the other two species produced fewer larvae than did within- M. faveolata crosses in the experiment with separated gametes, but many larvae resulted when the hybridizations were performed by mixing entire gamete bundles. Additional observations showed that M. franksi had 20% larger eggs and fewer eggs per gamete bundle than did the other two species and that it consistently spawned 1 to 1.5 h before the others, a potential temporal barrier to hybridization. These results indicate that there is no inherent pre-zygotic barrier to cross-fertilization among the three morphological species, although post-zygotic survival and fertility remain to be determined. The adherence of the proposed reclassification to the biological species concept requires further examination.
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