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Genetic discontinuity among regional populations of Lophelia pertusa in the North Atlantic Ocean


Knowledge of the degree to which populations are connected through larval dispersal is imperative to effective management, yet little is known about larval dispersal ability or population connectivity in Lophelia pertusa, the dominant framework-forming coral on the continental slope in the North Atlantic Ocean. Using nine microsatellite DNA markers, we assessed the spatial scale and pattern of genetic connectivity across a large portion of the range of L. pertusa in the North Atlantic Ocean. A Bayesian modeling approach found four distinct genetic groupings corresponding to ocean regions: Gulf of Mexico, coastal southeastern U.S., New England Seamounts, and eastern North Atlantic Ocean. An isolation-by-distance pattern was supported across the study area. Estimates of pairwise population differentiation were greatest with the deepest populations, the New England Seamounts (average F ST = 0.156). Differentiation was intermediate with the eastern North Atlantic populations (F ST = 0.085), and smallest between southeastern U.S. and Gulf of Mexico populations (F ST = 0.019), with evidence of admixture off the southeastern Florida peninsula. Connectivity across larger geographic distances within regions suggests that some larvae are broadly dispersed. Heterozygote deficiencies were detected within the majority of localities suggesting deviation from random mating. Gene flow between ocean regions appears restricted, thus, the most effective management scheme for L. pertusa involves regional reserve networks.

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This investigation was financially supported by the USGS Outer Continental Shelf Ecosystem Program and was sponsored by the Minerals Management Service. NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration supported field work both in the SEUS via four cruises (grants to S.W. Ross and S. Brooke, lead PIs) and also to the New England and Corner Rise Seamounts (cruise DASS2005, grant to L. Watling, T. Shank, S. France, R. Waller and P. Auster, lead PIs). Thanks to the ROV pilots and crew of the R/V Ronald H. Brown facilitating collection of the NES samples. The two R/V Cape Hatteras missions were sponsored by the Duke/UNC Oceanographic Consortium (to SWR), and we thank that ship’s personnel for excellent support. We thank J.M. Roberts and G. Duineveld for facilitating cruise participation of SWR on R/V Pelagia where ENAO samples were collected. Norwegian collections were financially supported by Statoil Hydro and The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. Special thanks to USGS Lophelia I research colleagues: G. Brewer, C. Kellogg, K. Sulak and the crew at the USGS Coastal Ecology and Conservation Research. We also thank the Continental Shelf Associates Lophelia I scientists for allowing an author (CLM) to participate on GOM cruises. The USGS-BRD Leetown Science Center, Aquatic Ecology Branch, provided partial funding to CLM. The following individuals kindly donated coral samples: E. Cordes, C. Fisher, W. Schroeder, A. Davies, J. Reed, C. Messing. Thanks are extended to the following individuals for helpful discussions regarding data collection and analyses: M. Eackles, B. Lubinski, C. Young, and J. Switzer. Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, the crew members of the R/V Seward Johnson I and II, and the JSL submersible crew helped make this research possible. M. Carlson produced maps and calculated geographic distances. M. Rhode and M. Springmann assisted with Figs 1 and 2, respectively. Comments by J. Switzer, M. Miller and 3 anonymous reviewers improved the manuscript. Any use of trade, product, or firm names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

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Correspondence to Cheryl L. Morrison.

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Morrison, C.L., Ross, S.W., Nizinski, M.S. et al. Genetic discontinuity among regional populations of Lophelia pertusa in the North Atlantic Ocean. Conserv Genet 12, 713–729 (2011).

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  • Cold-water coral
  • Connectivity
  • Gene flow
  • Dispersal barriers
  • Isolation by distance