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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

Phenotypic plasticity or speciation? A case from a clonal marine organism

Carlos Prada*, Nikolaos V Schizas and Paul M Yoshioka

Author Affiliations

Department of Marine Sciences, University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez, Isla Magueyes Laboratories, P.O. Box 908, Lajas, PR 00667, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:47  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-47

Published: 13 February 2008



Clonal marine organisms exhibit high levels of morphological variation. Morphological differences may be a response to environmental factors but also they can be attributed to accumulated genetic differences due to disruption of gene flow among populations. In this study, we examined the extensive morphological variation (of 14 characters) in natural populations observed in the gorgonian Eunicea flexuosa, a widely distributed Caribbean octocoral. Eco-phenotypic and genetic effects were evaluated by reciprocal transplants of colonies inhabiting opposite ends of the depth gradient and analysis of population genetics of mitochondrial and nuclear genes, respectively.


Significant differences (P < 0.001) in 14 morphological traits were found among colonies inhabiting 12 locations distributed in seven reefs in southwest Puerto Rico. Results from principal component analysis indicated the presence of two groups based on depth distribution, suggesting the presence of two discrete morphotypes (i.e. shallow type < 5 m and deep type > 17 m). A discriminant function analysis based on a priori univariate and multivariate analyses (which separated the colonies in morphotypes) correctly classified 93% of the colonies for each environment. Light, water motion and sediment transport might influence the distribution of the two morphotypes. Reaction norms of morphological characters of colonies reciprocally transplanted showed gradual significant changes through the 15 months of transplantation. Sclerites of shallow water colonies became larger when transplanted to deeper environments and vice versa, but neither of the two transplanted groups overlapped with the residents' morphology. Genetic analysis of mitochondrial and nuclear genes suggested that such discrete morphology and non-overlapping phenotypic plasticity is correlated with the presence of two independent evolutionary lineages. The distribution of the lineages is non-random and may be related to adaptational responses of each lineage to the environmental demands of each habitat.


The extensive distribution and ample morphological variation of Eunicea flexuosa corresponds to two distinct genetic lineages with narrower distributions and more rigid phenotypic plasticity than the original description. The accepted description sensu Bayer (1961) of E. flexuosa is a complex of at least two distinct genetic lineages, adapted to different habitats and do not exchange genetic material despite living in sympatry. The present study highlights the importance of correctly defining species, because the unknowingly use of species complexes can overestimate geographical distribution, population abundance, and physiological tolerance.