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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Ecological partitioning and diversity in tropical planktonic foraminifera

Heidi A Seears1, Kate F Darling2 and Christopher M Wade1*

Author affiliations

1 School of Biology, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK

2 School of GeoSciences and Institute of Evolutionary Biology, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK

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Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2012, 12:54  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-12-54

Published: 16 April 2012



Ecological processes are increasingly being viewed as an important mode of diversification in the marine environment, where the high dispersal potential of pelagic organisms, and a lack of absolute barriers to gene flow may limit the occurrence of allopatric speciation through vicariance. Here we focus on the potential role of ecological partitioning in the diversification of a widely distributed group of marine protists, the planktonic foraminifera. Sampling was conducted in the tropical Arabian Sea, during the southwest (summer) monsoon, when pronounced environmental conditions result in a strong disparity in temperature, salinity and productivity between distinct northern and southern water masses.


We uncovered extensive genetic diversity within the Arabian Sea planktonic foraminifera, identifying 13 morphospecies, represented by 20 distinct SSU rRNA genetic types. Several morphospecies/genetic types displayed non-random biogeographical distributions, partitioning between the northern and southern water masses, giving a strong indication of independent ecological adaptations.


We propose sea-surface primary productivity as the main factor driving the geographical segregation of Arabian Sea planktonic foraminifera, during the SW monsoon, with variations in symbiotic associations possibly playing a role in the specific ecological adaptations observed. Our findings suggest that ecological partitioning could be contributing to the high levels of 'cryptic' genetic diversity observed within the planktonic foraminifera, and support the view that ecological processes may play a key role in the diversification of marine pelagic organisms.