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LSU professor discovers how new corals species form in the ocean
Date:2/6/2013

who study speciation. Hellberg and Prada ask, "How can new marine species emerge without obvious geographic isolation?"

When it comes to corals within the relatively small confines of the Caribbean, which spans approximately 3 million square kilometers, the key to the puzzle appears to be habitat depth in the ocean. In others words, natural selection has led to the formation of different coral species according to how deep in the ocean these different corals grow.

Prada and Hellberg study candelabrum corals of the genus Eunicea, generally known as "sea fans," for which sister species have been shown to be segregated by ocean depth. One sister species survives better in shallow waters, while the other is better adapted to deep waters. These corals, like other corals, are very slow-growing animals. In fact, sea fan corals don't reach reproduction age until they are 15-30 years old, and can continue reproducing until they are 60 or more years old. So while candelabrum coral larvae can disperse large distances from their parents, landing and beginning to grow in either shallow or deep water habitats, small differences in survival rates at different depths between the two species and long generation times can combine to produce segregation.

"When these coral larvae first settle out after dispersal, they are all mixed up," Hellberg said. "But long larvae-to-reproduction times can compound small differences in survival at different depths. By the time these corals get to reproduction age, a lot has changed."

The shallow water sea fan coral even has a different morphology than its deep water sister. The shallow water coral fans out into a wide network of branches, while the deep water coral grows tall and spindly. According to Hellberg, these differences in morphology might well be genetic, with the different corals having different protein structures and levels of expression that are better adapted to their specific water depth envir
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Contact: Ashley Berthelot
aberth4@lsu.edu
225-578-3870
Louisiana State University
Source:Eurekalert

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