Alternate Title

Variation in Morphology vs Conservation of a Mitochondrial Gene in Montastraea cavernosa (Cnidaria, Scleractinia)


Skeletal morphology of many scleractinian corals may be influenced by environmental factors and may thus result in substantial intraspecific phenotypic plasticity and, possibly, in overlapping morphologies between species. Environmentally induced variation can also mask phenotypic variation that is genetically based. Morphological analyses and DNA sequence analyses were performed on Montastraea cavernosa from the Flower Garden Banks, Texas, and from the Florida Keys in order to assess variation within and between geographic regions. Skeletal characters, including corallite diameter, columella width, theca thickness, nearest-neighbor distance, length of first septa cycle, and width of first septa cycle, varied within colonies, among colonies, and between the Flower Garden Banks and the Florida Keys. Morphological variation may be controlled by environmental and genetic influences at different levels. If phenotype is under genetic control, it is not influenced by the mitochondrial cytochrome oxidase subunit I gene, because analysis of a 708 base pair fragment revealed identical sequences of M. cavernosa from these geographic regions. This high level of nucleotide sequence similarity may result from functional constraints, efficient DNA repair mechanisms, or other processes. This gene was not found to exhibit any variation in association with that observed in the morphology, and we suggest that it is an inappropriate genetic marker to use to assess intraspecific variation within this species and possibly other scleractinian species as well. Analysis via other molecular techniques will be necessary in order to assess the factors that influence morphological variation and that distinguish populations within this species.