Does depth divide? Variable genetic connectivity patterns among shallow and mesophotic Montastraea cavernosa coral populations across the Gulf of Mexico and western Caribbean
Alexis B. Sturm, Ryan J. Eckert, Ashley M. Carreiro, Allison M. Klein, Michael S. Studivan, Danielle Dodge Farelli, Nuno Simões, Patricia González-Díaz, Patricia González-Díaz, Joshua D. Voss
Despite general declines in coral reef ecosystems in the tropical western Atlantic, some reefs, including mesophotic reefs (30–150 m), are hypothesized to function as coral refugia due to their relative isolation from anthropogenic stressors. Understanding the connectivity dynamics among these putative refugia and more degraded reefs is critical to develop effective management strategies that promote coral metapopulation persistence and recovery. This study presents a geographically broad assessment of shallow (<30 m) and mesophotic (>30 m) connectivity dynamics of the depth-generalist coral species Montastraea cavernosa. Over 750 coral genets were collected across the Northwest and Southern Gulf of Mexico, Florida, Cuba, and Belize, and ~5000 SNP loci were generated to quantify high-resolution genetic structure and connectivity among these populations. Generally, shallow and mesophotic populations demonstrated higher connectivity to distant populations within the same depth zone than to adjacent populations across depth zones. However, exceptions to this pattern include the Northwest Gulf of Mexico and the Florida Keys which exhibited relatively high vertical genetic connectivity. Furthermore, estimates of recent gene flow emphasize that mesophotic M. cavernosa populations are not significant sources for their local shallow counterparts, except for the Northwest Gulf of Mexico populations. Location-based differences in vertical connectivity are likely a result of diverse oceanographic and environmental conditions that may drive variation in gene flow and depth-dependent selection. These results highlight the need to evaluate connectivity dynamics and refugia potential of mesophotic coral species on a population-by-population basis and to identify stepping-stone populations that warrant incorporation in future international management approaches.