The three members of the Montastraea annularis complex (M. annularis, M. franksi, and M. faveolata) are dominant reef builders in the western Atlantic whose species status has been controversial for over a decade. Although differences in colony morphology and reproductive characteristics exist, interspecific fertilizations are possible in the laboratory and genetic differentiation is slight. Here we compare the three taxa genetically and morphologically in Panama and the Bahamas, widely separated locations spanning most of their geographic ranges. In Panama, analyses of three AFLP loci, a noncoding region of the mitochondrial genome, and ITS sequences reveal that M. faveolata is strongly differentiated genetically. Discriminant function analysis also indicates no overlap with the other two species in the fine structure of the corallites that comprise the colony. Genetic analyses of larvae from interspecific crosses between M. faveolata and the other two taxa confirmed the hybrid status of the larvae, but no examples of the most probable F1 genotype were observed in the field. Although M. annularis and M. franksi were more similar, they also exhibited strong frequency differences at two AFLP loci and in the mitochondrial noncoding region, as well as distinct corallite structure. In the Bahamas, in contrast, the three taxa exhibited overlapping morphologies. Montastraea franksi and M. annularis were indistinguishable genetically, and M. faveolata was distinct at fewer genetic loci. Once again, however, the most probable F1 genotype involving M. faveolata was not observed. Geographic differences between Panama and the Bahamas explain why past studies have come to different conclusions concerning the status of the three species. In general, the genetic and morphological data suggest a north to south hybridization gradient, with evidence for introgression strongest in the north. However, reproductive data show no such trend, with intrinsic barriers to gene flow comparable or stronger in the north.
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Vol. 58 • No. 2