Defining the scale of connectivity among marine populations and identifying the barriers to gene flow are tasks of fundamental importance for understanding the genetic structure of populations and for the design of marine reserves. Here, we investigated the population genetic structure at three spatial scales of the red gorgonian Paramuricea clavata (Cnidaria, Octocorallia), a key species dwelling in the coralligenous assemblages of the Mediterranean Sea. Colonies of P. clavata were collected from 39 locations across the Mediterranean Sea from Morocco to Turkey and analysed using microsatellite loci. Within three regions (Medes, Marseille and North Corsica), sampling was obtained from multiple locations and at different depths. Three different approaches (measures of genetic differentiation, Bayesian clustering and spatially explicit maximum-difference algorithm) were used to determine the pattern of genetic structure. We identified genetic breaks in the spatial distribution of genetic diversity, which were concordant with oceanographic conditions in the Mediterranean Sea. We revealed a high level of genetic differentiation among populations and a pattern of isolation by distance across the studied area and within the three regions, underlining short effective larval dispersal in this species. We observed genetic differentiation among populations in the same locality dwelling at different depths, which may be explained by local oceanographic conditions and which may allow a process of local adaptation of the populations to their environment. We discuss the implications of our results for the conservation of the species, which is exposed to various threats.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.