Evolutionary Novelty Is Concentrated at the Edge of Coral Species Distributions

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Science  18 Jun 2010:
Vol. 328, Issue 5985, pp. 1558-1561
DOI: 10.1126/science.1188947

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Don't Forget the Edges

Reef-building corals are highly diverse, and many are threatened with extinction. In order to make predictions about coral survival, Budd and Pandolfi (p. 1558) examined morphological changes occurring over the evolutionary history of Caribbean corals. Long-term evolutionary patterns, including hybridization between species and diversification into new species (so-called lineage fusion and splitting) differed depending on the geographical location within the colony, with higher change occurring at a species' geographic margin relative to those in central locations. Thus, edge zones, which often experience limited gene flow, are responsible for the predominance of evolutionary innovation. If conservation strategies are biased toward biodiversity hotspots, which represent centers of high species richness, they may miss important sources of evolutionary novelty during global change.


Conservation priorities are calculated on the basis of species richness, endemism, and threats. However, areas ranked highly for these factors may not represent regions of maximal evolutionary potential. The relationship between geography and evolutionary innovation was analyzed in a dominant complex of Caribbean reef corals, in which morphological and genetic data concur on species differences. Based on geometric morphometrics of Pleistocene corals and genetically characterized modern colonies, we found that morphological disparity varies from the center to the edge of the Caribbean, and we show that lineages are static at well-connected central locations but split or fuse in edge zones where gene flow is limited. Thus, conservation efforts in corals should focus not only on the centers of diversity but also on peripheral areas of species ranges and population connectivity.

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