Long range gene flow beyond predictions from oceanographic transport in a tropical marine foundation species
The transport of passively dispersed organisms across tropical margins remains poorly understood. Hypotheses of oceanographic transportation potential lack testing with large scale empirical data. To address this gap, we used the seagrass species, Halodule wrightii, which is unique in spanning the entire tropical Atlantic. We tested the hypothesis that genetic differentiation estimated across its large-scale biogeographic range can be predicted by simulated oceanographic transport. The alternative hypothesis posits that dispersal is independent of ocean currents, such as transport by grazers. We compared empirical genetic estimates and modelled predictions of dispersal along the distribution of H. wrightii. We genotyped eight microsatellite loci on 19 populations distributed across Atlantic Africa, Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean, Brazil and developed a biophysical model with high-resolution ocean currents. Genetic data revealed low gene flow and highest differentiation between (1) the Gulf of Mexico and two other regions: (2) Caribbean-Brazil and (3) Atlantic Africa. These two were more genetically similar despite separation by an ocean. The biophysical model indicated low or no probability of passive dispersal among populations and did not match the empirical genetic data. The results support the alternative hypothesis of a role for active dispersal vectors like grazers.