Understanding coral dispersal
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Understanding the factors influencing species ranges and dispersal are becoming increasingly important as climate change alters species distributions worldwide. If species are to persist, life-history strategies must rapidly evolve to accommodate shifting environments. This dissertation assesses the factors modulating dispersal in corals. First, I examined if there were any systematic differences in settlement between Indo-Pacific and Caribbean coral larvae that might explain Caribbean recruitment failures. No differences were observed, however I detected significant divergences in settlement cue preferences among coral species across both the Caribbean (Diploria strigosa, and Montastraea franksi) and the Indo-Pacific (Acropora tenuis, A. millepora, and Favia lizardensis), even for coral larvae from the same reef. Secondly, I established the extent of coral dispersal between remote reefs. I evaluated the genetic diversity and divergence across Micronesia for two coral species and investigated if these islands served as a connectivity corridor between the Indo-West-Pacific (Coral Triangle) and the Central Pacific. I found isolation-by-distance patterns whose strength depended on species, suggesting these corals are not panmictic across their ranges and that island stepping-stones facilitate gene flow to remote Pacific reefs. Next, I investigated genetic structure of symbionts in these same corals, to see if horizontally transmitted symbionts are less dispersive than their coral hosts. Symbiont genetic divergence between islands was an order of magnitude larger than host divergence and both host species and environment modulated symbiont composition. These results suggest that symbiont populations are host-specific and associating with local symbionts might be a mechanism for broadly dispersing corals to adapt locally. Lastly, I estimated heritable variation in dispersal-related traits in coral larvae. I observed strong heritable variation in gene expression, as well as parental effects on two phenotypic traits, settlement and fluorescence. I observed that patterns of differential expression in three-day-old larvae predicted variation in settlement and fluorescence two days later. Correlations between proteoglycan expression and settlement suggest that the larval extracellular matrix plays a role in settlement. Down-regulation of ribosomal proteins and differential expression of oxidative stress genes correlated with increasing fluorescence, possibly indicating reduced growth and increased stress. Overall, this dissertation contributes to our knowledge of factors affecting coral dispersal and the potential for evolution of dispersal-related traits.