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Long-lived corals, the foundation of modern reefs, often follow ecological gradients, so that populations or sister species segregate by habitat. Adaptive divergence maintains sympatric congeners after secondary contact or may even generate species by natural selection in the face of gene flow. Such ecological divergence, initially between alternative phenotypes within populations, may be aided by immigrant inviability, especially when a long period separates larval dispersal and the onset of reproduction, during which selection can sort lineages to match different habitats. Here, we evaluate the strength of one ecological factor (depth) to isolate populations by comparing the genes and morphologies of pairs of depth-segregated populations of the candelabrum coral Eunicea flexuosa across the Caribbean. Eunicea is endemic to the Caribbean and all sister species co-occur. Eunicea flexuosa is widespread both geographically and across reef habitats. Our genetic analysis revealed two depth-segregated lineages. Field survivorship data, combined with estimates of selection coefficients based on transplant experiments, suggest that selection is strong enough to segregate these two lineages. Genetic exchange between the Shallow and Deep lineages occurred either immediately after divergence or the two have diverged with gene flow. Migration occurs asymmetrically from the Shallow to Deep lineage. Limited recruitment to reproductive age, even under weak annual selection advantage, is sufficient to generate habitat segregation because of the cumulative prolonged prereproductive selection. Ecological factors associated with depth can act as filters generating strong barriers to gene flow, altering morphologies, and contributing to the potential for speciation in the sea.

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Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

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