The Roles of Introgression and Climate Change in the Rise to Dominance of Acropora Corals

Curr Biol. 2018 Nov 5;28(21):3373-3382.e5. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2018.08.061. Epub 2018 Oct 18.


Reef-building corals provide the structural basis for one of Earth's most spectacular and diverse-but increasingly threatened-ecosystems. Modern Indo-Pacific reefs are dominated by species of the staghorn coral genus Acropora, but the evolutionary and ecological factors associated with their diversification and rise to dominance are unclear. Recent work on evolutionary radiations has demonstrated the importance of introgression and ecological opportunity in promoting diversification and ecological success. Here, we analyze the genomes of five staghorn coral species to examine the roles of introgression and ecological opportunity in the rise to dominance of Acropora. We found evidence for a history marked by a major introgression event as well as recurrent gene flow across species. In addition, we found that genes with topologies mismatching the species tree are evolving faster, which is suggestive of a role for introgression in spreading adaptive genetic variation. Demographic analysis showed that Acropora lineages profited from climate-driven mass extinctions in the Plio-Pleistocene, indicating that Acropora exploited ecological opportunity opened by a new climatic regime favoring species that could cope with rapid sea-level changes. Collectively, the genomes of reef-building corals have recorded an evolutionary history shaped by introgression and climate change, suggesting that Acropora-among most vulnerable corals to stressors-may be critical for understanding how reefs track the impending rapid sea-level changes of the Anthropocene.

Keywords: Acropora; adaptive radiation; climate change; corals; ecological opportunity; hybridization; introgression; mass extinction; sea level.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anthozoa / genetics
  • Anthozoa / physiology*
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Climate Change*
  • Coral Reefs
  • Ecosystem
  • Gene Flow*
  • Life History Traits
  • Population Density