Diversity and Evolution of Octocoral Animal Forests at Both Sides of Tropical America

  • Juan Armando Sánchez
Living reference work entry


Octocoral animal forests (Gorgoniidae and Plexauridae: Octocorallia) at both sides of tropical America provide a unique and characteristic seascape. They can reach over 2 m in height and even form a closed “canopy” in the densest communities. As a functional forest, gorgonian corals provide feeding substrate and habitat for diverse associated biota. This shallow-water fauna was evidently affected by the closure of the Isthmus of Panama, which provided new and different ecological opportunities at both sides. The different ecological settings provided opportunities for these groups to undergo separate adaptive radiations. New ecological conditions could lead to diversification in this group. At the Tropical Eastern Pacific (TEP), new planktonic resources provided new niches for suspension-feeding organisms, such as azooxanthellated gorgonian corals, and could have driven an adaptive radiation to exploit the new food sources. In the Caribbean, there is evidence of ecological speciation in some genera, and the scenario of ecological divergence as a major driver of gorgonian coral diversification is very likely. Thus far, the developmental phenotypic plasticity that we see today in transisthmian gorgonian corals is not just the product of speciation but adaptive developmental plasticity, and it needs further study. Gorgonian corals are today affected by many of the stressors predicted by global change, such as an increase in the frequency and intensity of tropical storms, rising seawater temperatures, and invasive species, yet these cnidarians seem highly resilient to bleaching and ocean acidification conditions. However, there is a link between high thermal anomalies and gorgonian coral immunity, which is associated to disease outbreaks and mass mortalities in sea fans in the Caribbean since the 1980s and more recently in the TEP.


Octocorals Gorgonian corals Ecological speciation Adaptive radiation Ocean acidification Octocorallia Zooxanthellae Global climate change Emerging marine diseases Aspergillosis 



The author acknowledges several expeditions to SFF Malpelo Island and Gorgona Island (PNN) organized and supported by Fundación Malpelo and Parques Nacionales Naturales de Colombia (Sandra Bessudo, Ximena Zorrilla, and Nancy Murillo) together with the continuing support from Vicerrectoria de Investigaciones (Programas de Investigación) and Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia. Colciencias and National Geographic (Waitt) grants allowed exploring the Colombian Choco rocky reefs. The author recognizes the participation and support from local communities during his surveys. The help from colleagues and students from BIOMMAR for assistance in the field and laboratory including Luisa Dueñas, Catalina Ramírez, Diana Ballesteros, Carlos E. Gómez, Fabio Casas, Lina Gutierrez, Elena Quintanilla, and Dairo Escobar among others is greatly appreciated. Comments from Ernesto Weil, Sergio Rossi, and Yehuda Benayahu greatly improved the manuscript. For many years, informal chats, unfunded proposals, and interesting discussions on gorgonian and other corals, with many colleagues, enriched many of the ideas presented here, for what the author wants to acknowledge (in no particular order) to Howard Lasker, Mark Vermeij, Ivan Calixto, Carlos Prada, Peter Andolfato, Camilo Salazar, Nestor Ardila, Mary-Alice Coffroth, Scott Santos, Tammar Goulet, Sven Zea, Stephen Cairns, and Luisa Dueñas.


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© Springer International Publishing AG 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Departamento de Ciencias Biológicas-Facultad de Ciencias, Laboratorio de Biología Molecular Marina (BIOMMAR)Universidad de los AndesBogotáColombia

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