Distinct Phenotypes Associated with Mangrove and Lagoon Habitats in Two Widespread Caribbean Corals, Porites astreoides and Porites divaricata

Biol Bull. 2021 Jun;240(3):169-190. doi: 10.1086/714047. Epub 2021 May 24.


AbstractAs coral reefs experience dramatic declines in coral cover throughout the tropics, there is an urgent need to understand the role that non-reef habitats, such as mangroves, play in the ecological niche of corals. Mangrove habitats present a challenge to reef-dwelling corals because they can differ dramatically from adjacent reef habitats with respect to key environmental parameters, such as light. Because variation in light within reef habitats is known to drive intraspecific differences in coral phenotype, we hypothesized that coral species that can exploit both reef and mangrove habitats will exhibit predictable differences in phenotypes between habitats. To investigate how intraspecific variation, driven by either local adaptation or phenotypic plasticity, might enable particular coral species to exploit these two qualitatively different habitat types, we compared the phenotypes of two widespread Caribbean corals, Porites divaricata and Porites astreoides, in mangrove versus lagoon habitats on Turneffe Atoll, Belize. We document significant differences in colony size, color, structural complexity, and corallite morphology between habitats. In every instance, the phenotypic differences between mangrove prop root and lagoon corals exhibited consistent trends in both P. divaricata and P. astreoides. We believe this study is the first to document intraspecific phenotypic diversity in corals occupying mangrove prop root versus lagoonal patch reef habitats. A difference in the capacity to adopt an alternative phenotype that is well suited to the mangrove habitat may explain why some reef coral species can exploit mangroves, while others cannot.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anthozoa*
  • Caribbean Region
  • Coral Reefs
  • Ecosystem
  • Phenotype