Morphological variation and different branch modularity across contrasting flow conditions in dominant Pocillopora reef-building corals

Abstract

Pocillopora corals, the dominant reef-builders in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, exhibit a high level of phenotypic plasticity, making the interpretation of morphological variation and the identification of species challenging. To test the hypothesis that different coral morphospecies represent phenotypes that develop in different flow conditions, we compared branch characters in three Pocillopora morphospecies (P. damicornis, P. verrucosa, and P. meandrina) from two communities in the Gulf of California exposed to contrasting flow conditions. Morphological variation and branch modularity (i.e., the tendency of different sets of branch traits to vary in a coordinated way) were assessed in colonies classified as Pocillopora type 1 according to two mitochondrial regions. Our results can be summarized as follows. (1) Pocillopora type 1 morphospecies corresponded to a pattern of morphological variation in the Gulf of California. Overall, P. damicornis had the thinnest branches and its colonies the highest branch density, followed by P. verrucosa, and then by P. meandrina, which had the thickest branches and its colonies the lowest branch density. (2) The differentiation among morphospecies was promoted by different levels of modularity of traits. P. verrucosa had the highest coordination of traits, followed by P. damicornis, and P. meandrina. (3) The variation and modularity of branch traits were related to water flow condition. Morphology under the high-flow condition was more similar among morphospecies than under the low-flow condition and seemed to be related to mechanisms for coping with these conditions. Our results provide the first evidence that in scleractinian corals different levels of modularity can be promoted by different environmental conditions.

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Acknowledgments

We thank David Vega, Fernando Aranceta, Pedro González, and Mario Cota of CIBNOR, Saúl González and Salwa El Khattabi of UABCS, Angélica Campos and José Meléndez of CICIMAR for field assistance, and Noemí Bocanegra Castillo of CIBNOR for laboratory assistance. We thank John E. N. Veron, Peter W. Glynn, Jorge Cortés, Héctor Reyes Bonilla, and Andrés López Pérez for their corroboration of species. We are grateful to Johanna H. Rosman and Todd C. LaJeunesse for their comments of an earlier version of the manuscript. We also thank the editors and anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions. Ira Fogel of CIBNOR provided editorial services. Funding was provided by CONACYT (grant 157993) to EFB and 2011 UNESCO-MAB Young Scientists to DAPG. DAPG, RACT, and AAM are recipients of student fellowships from CONACYT (160065, 212435, and 236332, respectively).

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Correspondence to Eduardo F. Balart.

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Communicated by Andrew Baker.

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Paz-García, D.A., Aldana-Moreno, A., Cabral-Tena, R.A. et al. Morphological variation and different branch modularity across contrasting flow conditions in dominant Pocillopora reef-building corals. Oecologia 178, 207–218 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-014-3199-9

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Keywords

  • Phenotypic modularity
  • Morphometrics
  • Pocillopora morphospecies
  • Phenotypic plasticity
  • Easter Tropical Pacific
  • Mitochondrial lineage