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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

Molecules and fossils reveal punctuated diversification in Caribbean “faviid” corals

Sonja A Schwartz1*, Ann F Budd2 and David B Carlon3

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management, University of California, Berkeley, CA, 94720, USA

2 Department of Geoscience, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, 52242, USA

3 Department of Biology, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, HI, 96822, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2012, 12:123  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-12-123

Published: 25 July 2012



Even with well-known sampling biases, the fossil record is key to understanding macro-evolutionary patterns. During the Miocene to Pleistocene in the Caribbean Sea, the fossil record of scleractinian corals shows a remarkable period of rapid diversification followed by massive extinction. Here we combine a time-calibrated molecular phylogeny based on three nuclear introns with an updated fossil stratigraphy to examine patterns of radiation and extinction in Caribbean corals within the traditional family Faviidae.


Concatenated phylogenetic analysis showed most species of Caribbean faviids were monophyletic, with the exception of two Manicina species. The time-calibrated tree revealed the stem group originated around the closure of the Tethys Sea (17.0 Ma), while the genus Manicina diversified during the Late Miocene (8.20 Ma), when increased sedimentation and productivity may have favored free-living, heterotrophic species. Reef and shallow water specialists, represented by Diploria and Favia, originate at the beginning of the Pliocene (5 – 6 Ma) as the Isthmus of Panama shoaled and regional productivity declined.


Later origination of the stem group than predicted from the fossil record corroborates the hypothesis of morphological convergence in Diploria and Favia genera. Our data support the rapid evolution of morphological and life-history traits among faviid corals that can be linked to Mio-Pliocene environmental changes.

Scleractinia; Speciation; Adaptive radiation; Miocene; Pliocene; Coral reef