Recent molecular analyses indicate that many reef coral species belong to hybridizing species complexes or “syngameons.” Such complexes consist of numerous genetically distinct species or lineages, which periodically split and/or fuse as they extend through time. During splitting and fusion, morphologic intermediates form and species overlap. Here we focus on processes associated with lineage fusion, specifically introgressive hybridization, and the recognition of such hybridization in the fossil record. Our approach involves comparing patterns of ecologic and morphologic overlap in genetically characterized modern species with fossil representatives of the same or closely related species. We similarly consider the long-term consequences of past hybridization on the structure of modern-day species boundaries.
Our study involves the species complex Montastraea annularis s.l. and is based in the Bahamas, where, unlike other Caribbean locations, two of the three members of the complex today are not genetically distinct. We measured and collected colonies along linear transects across Pleistocene reef terraces of last interglacial age (approximately 125 Ka) on the islands of San Salvador, Andros, and Great Inagua. We performed quantitative ecologic and morphologic analyses of the fossil data, and compared patterns of overlap among species with data from modern localities where species are and are not genetically distinct.
Ecologic and morphologic analyses reveal “moderate” overlap (>10%, but statistically significant differences) and sometimes “high” overlap (no statistically significant differences) among Pleistocene growth forms (= “species”). Ecologic analyses show that three species (massive, column, organ-pipe) co-occurred. Although organ-pipes had higher abundances in patch reef environments, columnar and massive species exhibited broad, completely overlapping distributions and had abundances that were not related to reef environment. For morphometric analyses, we used multivariate discriminant analysis on landmark data and linear measurements. The results show that columnar species overlap “moderately” with organ-pipe and massive species. Comparisons with genetically characterized colonies from Panama show that the Pleistocene Bahamas species have intermediate morphologies, and that the observed “moderate” overlap differs from the morphologic separation among the three modern species. In contrast, massive and columnar species from the Pleistocene of the Dominican Republic comprise distinct morphologic clusters, similar to the modern species; organ-pipe species exhibit “low” overlap (<10%, only at species margins) with columnar and massive species.
Assuming that “moderate” overlap implies hybridization and “high” overlap implies more complete lineage fusion, these results support the hypothesis of hybridization among species within the complex in the Bahamas during the Pleistocene. Hybridization involved introgression of three distinct evolutionary lineages, in association with Pleistocene sea level and temperature fluctuations, and appears to have been limited geographically primarily to the Bahamas and the northern Caribbean. Thus, not only does the structure of species boundaries within the complex vary geographically, but these geographic differences may have persisted since the Pleistocene.