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31 Past, Present and Future Connectivity of Mediterranean Cold-Water Corals: Patterns, Drivers and Fate in a Technically and Environmentally Changing World

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Mediterranean Cold-Water Corals: Past, Present and Future

Part of the book series: Coral Reefs of the World ((CORW,volume 9))


Given the vastness of the oceans and the small size of larvae and other marine propagules, tracking marine organisms’ dispersal particles is unrealistic. When propagules successfully recruit, a genetic profile can be tracked that integrates the movements of multiple generations. Molecular analyses thus provide an indirect means of estimating connectivity among subdivided populations, at any given spatial and/or temporal scale of interest. In general, it remains challenging to disentangle the relative influence of the various processes that cause the observed patterns of genetic differentiation among subpopulations, notably in far-off deep-sea environments. In the past decade only a handful of studies have reported on the genetic patterns in Mediterranean cold-water corals. This represents a substantial limitation for any researcher attempting to understand the dynamics of Mediterranean cold-water coral populations. It affects as well conservation decisions involving these vulnerable species and habitats. Until recently, hypotheses for gene flow of some deep-sea corals in the Atlantic have included moderate to high connectivity at broad and regional scales, through sporadic larval transport mediated by ocean currents, and simultaneous strong discontinuities between ocean basins caused by vicariance or local adaptation. However, progress has been made that is allowing researchers to retrace past major modifications in the patterns of cold-water coral migrations at evolutionary time-scales, in and out of the Mediterranean Sea. Growing evidence of the influence of clonality and its effect on estimates of genetic diversity now stimulate researchers to engage in optimised sampling strategies. Improved estimates are possible to attain, provided a rigorous sampling strategy. Studies of the cosmopolitan corals Lophelia pertusa and Madrepora oculata have made evident that Atlantic populations are clearly differentiated from Mediterranean ones, suggesting that contemporary gene flow between the two genetic backgrounds is very limited, if at all present. Results support several non-mutually exclusive hypotheses: that subpopulations in the North East Atlantic were recolonised from Mediterranean refugia following the last glacial maximum; that Mediterranean L. pertusa reefs appear to have been relevant glacial refugia during the Pleistocene glaciations and the main source for North East Atlantic recolonisation; and that M. oculata in the NE Atlantic may have had multiple sources of post-Last Glacial Maximum colonisation, which remain elusive. The solitary Desmophyllum dianthus has been shown to share the same genetic identity between very distant populations (Mediterranean and NE Atlantic). Yet, it remains unclear if this is solely due to high contemporary gene flow or if the genetic resemblance is a remnant left by an Atlantic post-glacial recolonisation from a unique Mediterranean source with high population size. Future genome-wide studies with next generation sequencing techniques will undoubtedly help clarifying the interpretations of molecular data in terms of past and present cold-water corals migration pathways. This is strongly needed, as the development of effective conservation strategies relies on well-informed, knowledge-based, policies. These must include thorough species inventories, relatedness, connectivity metrics and clear identification of genetic units, all of which depending on the use of robust techniques. Indeed, information on the genetic connectivity of Mediterranean cold-water coral populations has proven to be key to the establishment of a protected site under the European Union’s Natura 2000 Network of protected areas. We conclude with perspectives on how Next Generation Sequencing will strengthen inferences on connectivity of the majestic cold-water coral habitats in the coming years.

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  1. 1.

    Genome scan is used here in its primary semantic meaning, thus fitting the definition given by Richard and Hawley (2010, “Human genome”; p 561): “A survey of genetic markers spread across the whole genome. A genome scan will usually involve hundreds of markers”, rather than the one previously proposed in the Encyclopedic Reference of Genomics and Proteomics in Molecular Medicine (2006), that narrows its scope to the screening for phenotype related markers (“Genome scan refers to a genetic research method in which the entire DNA of an organism is searched systematically for locations on the chromosomes that are inherited in the same pattern as a specific trait”).


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We wish to thank the following projects, which contributed through data production or thoughts to feed this synthesis chapter: CoralFISH EU-FP7 project under Grant agreement no.213144, Atlas H2020 under grant agreement No 678760, the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation (CGL2011-23306 and CTM2014-57949R) and EU CoCoNET—“Towards COast to COast NETworks of marine protected areas (from the shore to the high and deep-sea), coupled with sea-based wind energy potential”—from the VII FP of the European Commission under grant agreement n° 287844, and the participants in the network on Marine Connectivity MarCo ( Joana Boavida is supported by an Ifremer post-doc fellowship. The work on M. oculata and L. pertusa corals was performed by Ronan Becheler during his PhD supported by an Ifremer-Region Bretagne grant, on corals collected during the BobEco (2011) and IceCTD (2012) cruises and on Mediterranean corals sampled thanks to colleagues including Alessandra Savini, Marco Taviani and Franck Lagarde. For the work on D. dianthus, we want to thank Annie Machodorm and her group members at the Department of Biodiversity and Evolutionary Biology of MNCN (CSIC), for their great support and the inspiring discussions. We also thank Cathy Liautard-Haag for technical comments and for sharing her opinions on the application and evolution of NGS techniques.

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Correspondence to Sophie Arnaud-Haond .

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Boavida, J., Becheler, R., Addamo, A.M., Sylvestre, F., Arnaud-Haond, S. (2019). 31 Past, Present and Future Connectivity of Mediterranean Cold-Water Corals: Patterns, Drivers and Fate in a Technically and Environmentally Changing World. In: Orejas, C., Jiménez, C. (eds) Mediterranean Cold-Water Corals: Past, Present and Future. Coral Reefs of the World, vol 9. Springer, Cham.

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