H.B. Harrison, M.S. Pratchett, V. Messmer, P. Saenz-Agudelo and M.L. Berumen
Diversity, 9(1), 16, (2016)
Coral reefs, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Population genetics, Approximate Bayesian computation
Specific patterns in the initiation and spread of reef-wide outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish are important, both to understand potential causes (or triggers) of outbreaks and to develop more effective and highly targeted management and containment responses. Using analyses of genetic diversity and structure (based on 17 microsatellite loci), this study attempted to resolve the specific origin for recent outbreaks of crown-of-thorns on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (GBR). We assessed the genetic structure amongst 2705 starfish collected from 13 coral reefs in four regions that spanned ~1000 km of the GBR. Our results indicate that populations sampled across the full length of the GBR are genetically homogeneous (G’ST = −0.001; p = 0.948) with no apparent genetic structure between regions. Approximate Bayesian computational analyses suggest that all sampled populations had a common origin and that current outbreaking populations of crown-of-thorns starfish (CoTS) in the Swains are not independent of outbreak populations in the northern GBR. Despite hierarchical sampling and large numbers of CoTS genotyped from individual reefs and regions, limited genetic structure meant we were unable to determine a putative source population for the current outbreak of CoTS on the GBR. The very high genetic homogeneity of sampled populations and limited evidence of inbreeding indicate rapid expansion in population size from multiple, undifferentiated latent populations.