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Shallow water anthozoans, the major builders of modern coral reefs, enhance their metabolic and calcification rates with algal symbionts. Controversy exists over whether these anthozoan-algae associations are flexible over the lifetimes of individual hosts, promoting acclimative plasticity, or are closely linked, such that hosts and symbionts co-evolve across generations. Given the diversity of algal symbionts and the morphological plasticity of many host species, cryptic variation within either partner could potentially confound studies of anthozoan-algal associations. Here, we used ribosomal, organelle and nuclear sequences, along with microsatellite variation, to study the relationship between lineages of a common Caribbean gorgonian and its algal symbionts. The gorgonian Eunicea flexuosa is a broadcast spawner, composed of two recently diverged, genetically distinct lineages largely segregated by depth. We sampled colonies of the two lineages across depth gradients at three Caribbean locations. We find that each host lineage is associated with a unique Symbiodinium B1/184 phylotype. This relationship between host and symbiont is maintained when host colonies are reciprocally transplanted, although cases of within phylotype switching were also observed. Even when the phylotypes of both partners are present at intermediate depths, the specificity between host and symbiont lineages remained absolute. Unrecognized cryptic diversity may mask host-symbiont specificity and change the inference of evolutionary processes in mutualistic associations. Symbiotic specificity thus likely contributes to the ecological divergence of the two partners, generating species diversity within coral reefs. © 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

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Molecular Ecology

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