Cryptic lineages respond differently to coral bleaching

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Coral cover is decreasing worldwide largely as a result of a rise in seawater temperatures that triggers coral bleaching and induces coral mortality. How coral reefs will respond to climate change will be a function of genetic variation and how it is partitioned within and among species. A critical initial step is to accurately delineate species and quantify their physiological potential to cope with heat stress. Cryptic species are morphologically similar but genetically distinct and may respond physiologically differently to climate change. A dominant Caribbean reef builder severely affected by climate change is the mountainous star coral, Orbicella faveolata. Recently in this journal, Dziedzic et al. reported quantitative genetic variation in the physiological response to thermal stress in a single population of this species, suggesting that variation within populations will allow these corals to adapt to rising ocean temperatures. We reanalysed their data and found multiple cryptic lineages rather than a single panmictic population, with one of the lineages being heat-intolerant. While different cryptic lineages co-occur in certain locations, there is at least one lineage that occurs only in a single location. Our finding of hidden lineages within a threatened species highlights the varying extinction risks faced by these independently evolving groups, especially when the prospects of survival under warmer oceans seem favourable for only some of them.

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Molecular Ecology