Coral Reefs

, Volume 28, Issue 1, pp 215–225 | Cite as

High genetic differentiation and cross-shelf patterns of genetic diversity among Great Barrier Reef populations of Symbiodinium

  • E. J. Howells
  • M. J. H. van OppenEmail author
  • B. L. Willis


The resilience of Symbiodinium harboured by corals is dependent on the genetic diversity and extent of connectivity among reef populations. This study presents genetic analyses of Great Barrier Reef (GBR) populations of clade C Symbiodinium hosted by the alcyonacean coral, Sinularia flexibilis. Allelic variation at four newly developed microsatellite loci demonstrated that Symbiodinium populations are genetically differentiated at all spatial scales from 16 to 1,360 km (pairwise ΦST = 0.01–0.47, mean = 0.22); the only exception being two neighbouring populations in the Cairns region separated by 17 km. This indicates that gene flow is restricted for Symbiodinium C hosted by S. flexibilis on the GBR. Patterns of population structure reflect longshore circulation patterns and limited cross-shelf mixing, suggesting that passive transport by currents is the primary mechanism of dispersal in Symbiodinium types that are acquired horizontally. There was no correlation between the genetic structure of Symbiodinium populations and their host S. flexibilis, most likely because different factors affect the dispersal and recruitment of each partner in the symbiosis. The genetic diversity of these Symbiodinium reef populations is on average 1.5 times lower on inshore reefs than on offshore reefs. Lower inshore diversity may reflect the impact of recent bleaching events on Sinularia assemblages, which have been more widespread and severe on inshore reefs, but may also have been shaped by historical sea level fluctuations or recent migration patterns.


Dinoflagellate Population Genetic diversity Connectivity Sinularia 



Gratitude is expressed to C Bastidas for her previous work on S. flexibilis, which provided the samples for this research project, and to PB Souter, ER Ballment and AN Muirhead for their work in developing the Symbiodinium microsatellites. Thanks are also given to L Peplow and AN Muirhead for laboratory assistance at the Australian Institute of Marine Science. This project was funded by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, the Marine and Tropical Sciences Research Facility and an AIMS@JCU support grant to E Howells.

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • E. J. Howells
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • M. J. H. van Oppen
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
    Email author
  • B. L. Willis
    • 2
    • 3
  1. 1.Australian Institute of Marine ScienceTownsvilleAustralia
  2. 2.Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, School of Marine and Tropical BiologyJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia
  3. 3.AIMS@JCU, Australian Institute of Marine Science, School of Marine and Tropical BiologyJames Cook UniversityTownsvilleAustralia

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