The effects of sea level fluctuations on coral reef fishes : genetic differences between outer reef and lagoon inhabiting wrasses (genus Halichoeres)



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Sea levels fluctuated following glacial cycles during the Pleistocene, reaching approximately 115-130m below current sea levels in the Indian and Pacific Oceans during the last glacial maximum 17,000 years before present. The effects of these sea level fluctuations on population structure have been shown in many near-shore marine taxa, revealing several common patterns. However, the underlying mechanisms behind these observed patterns are largely unknown. Drops in sea level affect the distribution of shallow marine biota, exposing the continental shelf on a global scale, and displacing coral reef habitat to steep slopes where shelf breaks are shallow. In these circumstances, we expect that species inhabiting lagoons should show reduced genetic diversity relative to species inhabiting more stable outer reefs. Here, I tested this expectation on the scale of an entire ocean-basin with four wrasses (genus Halichoeres): H. claudia (N=194, with ocean-wide distribution) and H. ornatissimus (N=346, a Hawaiian endemic) inhabit seaward reef slopes, whereas H. trimaculatus (N=239) and H. margaritaceus (N= 118) inhabit lagoons and shallow habitats throughout the Pacific. Two mitochondrial markers (cytochrome oxidase I and control region) were sequenced to resolve population structure and history of each species. Haplotype and nucleotide diversity were similar among all four species. The outer reef species showed significantly less population structure, consistent with longer pelagic larval durations and a historically stable population. Mismatch distributions and significant negative Fu’s F values indicate Pleistocene population expansion for all species, and (contrary to expectations) reduced genetic diversity in the outer slope species. These data indicate that lagoonal species may persist through the loss of habitat, but are restricted to isolated refugia during lower sea level stands, which may inflate genetic diversity during high sea levels. Outer reef slope species on the other hand have homogeneous and well-connected populations through their entire ranges regardless of sea level fluctuations. These findings contradict the hypothesis that shallow species are less genetically diverse as a consequence of glacial cycles.