GENETIC DATA INDICATES THAT HYBRIDIZATION BETWEEN CARIBBEAN ELKHORN AND STAGHORN CORALS IS A LIKELY MECHANISM FOR RAPID ADAPTATION
Current models predict the demise of reefs in the next 200 years. It is thus essential to identify habitats, taxa and evolutionary mechanisms that will allow some coral species to maintain their role as foundation fauna. Hybridization can provide an avenue for adaptation to changing conditions and corals hybridize with some frequency. But results may range from the introduction of just a few alleles into existing parent species via introgression, to the birth of a new, perhaps better adapted genetic lineage. Here, we concentrate on once dominant but now threatened species, Acropora cervicornis and A. palmata. In the past, hybrid colonies originating from natural crosses between elkhorn and staghorn corals were rare, and only infrequent hybrid reproduction with staghorn coral was evident, limiting the evolutionary potential of this hybrid system. New genetic and genomic data indicate that hybrids are now mating with each other, demonstrating the potential for the formation of a new species. Further, hybrids appear to be capable of mating with both staghorn and elkhorn coral, perhaps leading to gene flow between the parent species via the hybrid. Recent field observations suggest that the hybrid is increasing and its ecological role is changing throughout the Caribbean. These hybrids appear to be less affected by the disease that led to the mass mortality of their parental species in recent decades. Hybrids are also found thriving in shallow habitats with high temperatures and irradiance suggesting they may be less susceptible to future warming scenarios. Hybridization is thus a possible and probable mechanism for coral adaptation to changing conditions in the Caribbean.
Baums, I. B., Pennsylvania State University, USA, email@example.com
Durante, M., Pennsylvania State University, USA, firstname.lastname@example.org
Fogarty, N., NOVA Southeastern University, USA, email@example.com
Kitchen, S., Pennsylvania State University, USA, firstname.lastname@example.org
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